Helen Benedict on When Refugees Are Women and Girls
Timely, powerful and deeply humane, Map of Hope and Sorrow shares the stories of five refugees who have made dangerous journeys from the Middle East and Africa to Greece. After spending years getting to know their interviewees, the authors Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan shed light on the harrowing experiences and incredible resilience of people who, after fleeing war or persecution, found themselves trapped in another way - in Greek refugee camps, with no way of moving forward or back.
In this exclusive piece, Helen Benedict discusses the threats and alarming conditions that female refugees in particular face – in war and conflict, during their journeys trying to reach safety, as well as in the camps.
Please note that this piece discusses themes that readers may find distressing.
When the first reports started coming out about the millions of Ukrainian women and children fleeing Putin’s war, I braced myself for what I feared would soon follow: stories not only of death and entrapment, but of the sexual violence and rape that war always inflicts on women and girls.
Tragically enough, this is exactly what seems to be happening. The BBC and many other news outlets report that Russian soldiers appear to be using the same tactics they used on civilian German women in World War Two, that Serbs used against Muslim women in Croatia in the Balkan wars, and that militias and soldiers are still using in Syria, Myanmar, Congo, Sudan, Somalia... It is the age-old tactic of using rape as a weapon of genocide, terrorism and psychological warfare.
I know about these terrible acts not only because I follow the news and have been writing about rape and other kinds of violence against women for years, but because I heard of similar attacks first-hand from refugees while researching my book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece. Both I and my co-author, the Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, heard horrific accounts of the sexual violence women, and also some young men, experienced in their home countries; on their journeys to Europe at the hands of police, soldiers and smugglers; and also, alas, in the refugee camps where they are supposed to be safe.
I say “supposed” because the truth is that, even though international law mandates that particularly vulnerable refugees like single women, children, and victims of torture or trafficking are to be given protected places to live, and medical and psychological help, this rarely happens. In the Greek refugee camps we saw, for example, women had no special protection at all, not even designated zones or housing. Many even lived alone in tents without so much as a door to lock, and were afraid to go to the latrines or showers alone. All they had to protect themselves from predatory men was their own refusal to go out after dark and a little padlock some fastened to the zips that closed their tents. As a young Somali woman who had escaped the Islamist militant group, al Shebab, and arrived on Samos alone told me bitterly, ‘For single women like us, our tents become a prison at night.’
The threat of sexual violence is traumatic for anyone in a camp, but even more so for those who endured rape and torture before they arrived, as so many have. Imagine having suffered such violence only to find when reaching a supposed safe haven that the nightmare is not over. I met a lesbian on Samos who was beaten and raped in the camp because of her sexuality, and several other women and girls who were persecuted by men every night. Medical workers at Doctors Without Borders on the island told a visiting physician in 2019 that they saw 30 rape cases in the camp there every week – and that was only the reported rapes. Most refugees are too distrustful of police and asylum officials and afraid of social stigma and reprisal from their assailants to ever report an assault.
To make matters worse, the Greek government took Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a common reaction to rape, war and torture, off the list of vulnerabilities that qualify a refugee to be quickly transferred from the island camps to better accommodations on the mainland. This effectively closes off escape to safer conditions and treatment for all who most need them.
So what will happen to the latest refugee women to suffer the war crime of rape - the Ukrainians? Will their suffering also be ignored by the officials around them, as it is for the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Africans and Palestinians Eyad and I met? Will press reports of Russian soldiers gang-raping and torturing disappear under the more glamorous accounts of Ukrainian bravery and exploding weapons? Will warring governments ever acknowledge that, even though more men than women die in direct armed combat, modern warfare and its consequences harm and kill or starve many more women and children than men? And when will the generals of the world stop permitting, let alone encouraging, their soldiers to rape?
It is long past the time to stop talking about war as something that only involves men, weapons and soldiers. Instead, we should pay more attention to the particular ways that war victimizes women and children, so that we can better help all people, wherever they are from, who have had their bodies, integrity and peace of mind destroyed by the violence of men.
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