Having to flee your home because of violence is a traumatic experience, no matter who you are. But what would it be like if you were particularly vulnerable? What if you were a woman? What unique threats would you face due to your gender?
We don’t stop to think through these difficult realities very often. But doing so is a necessary part of meeting needs and loving people in concrete ways.
Today, in an effort to love better, come with us as we explore a few of the unique concerns experienced by many displaced women in Iraq or Syria.
If you were a woman, living on the outskirts of a major city threatened by ISIS, what would be going through your head?
Imagine with us, for a moment…
You’re left with an impossible choice: stay home where you are vulnerable to violence and systematic sexual assault by the ISIS fighters who occupy your town, or flee and risk the host of dangers it represents.
There is very little chance of safety if you stay unless your city is one of the lucky ones to be liberated—and if you aren’t used by ISIS as a human shield when they run. You could try to barricade yourself in your house, pray the fighting doesn’t come down your street and try to survive on what little food and water you have left. You could hope against hope that ISIS doesn’t notice you or your daughters, since they’ve been known to sexually enslave women and girls.
If you run, there is the chance that you might reach safety. However, on your way, you would temporarily be even more vulnerable to violence and assault because you’re out in the open with nowhere to hide. You might encounter people who do not have your best interest in mind—you could be captured, exploited, or killed as an act of retaliation between warring factions.
There are checkpoints set up around major cities, screening for ISIS fighters who are trying to sneak out with the people they’ve displaced. You would probably be separated from your husband or father during the screening process, left on your own in a poorly lit displacement camp or completely exposed in the open desert—exceptionally vulnerable to anyone who might take advantage of you.
The possibility of sexual assault is particularly terrifying during conflict, because getting pregnant as a result would create dozens of new complications for you and your family. You have no options and no legal recourse in the midst of war, so you’d be forced to raise the child of your rapist. Let’s take a leap and assume you’re one of those “lucky” women who have simple pregnancies and easy births with no complications.
If you are a teenager, there goes your chance of finishing school, or getting married—you are now an unwed mother raising the child of a violent extremist. If you are already married, how will this assault and pregnancy affect your marriage? Will your husband stay with you and raise someone else’s child? Especially the child of your oppressors? The odds are against that. This is, after all, a patriarchal society that tends to get caught up in the honor or shame of women. And all this is to say nothing of the heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and physical trauma caused by assault.
On a practical side, how do you meet your basic physical needs as a female refugee?
If you are a mother, how do you feed your children when you are fleeing through the desert? What happens if your child gets sick? What if you have an infant and you can’t find enough food or water? Your milk might dry up, and then what? What do you do for small children who need diapers?
When you’re displaced and on the run, what happens when you get your period? It may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. Imagine trying to deal with menstruation when you have no resources and no running water. (That’s one reason why we include sanitary pads in our hygiene kits for displaced families.)
If you are widowed, you must now provide for your family. But because you’re a female in a male-dominated culture, there’s a good chance that you never went to secondary school. Vulnerable, uneducated, with no resources, and with children to feed.
Do you feel the desperation?
The fear that comes with femininity is heightened in times of conflict, and the vulnerability of women skyrockets when they are displaced.
But the resilience of women never fails to blow us away.
It’s difficult to comprehend how unbelievably strong these women are. But it’s absolutely undeniable. And it’s contagious. Study after study proves that empowering women benefits entire communities. If you give a woman the tools and opportunity she needs to pick herself back up, she usually manages to get everyone around her back on their feet again too.
It is for that reason that many of our empowerment programs focus on women and address needs based on specific situations. Empowerment cannot be mass-produced. We approach empowerment on an individual level, getting to know people, seeking to understand their experiences, and providing the specific resources they need to rebuild.
Refugees are not a homogenous group. Displacement is one experience shared by millions of people with unique, individual needs. And we cannot meet the needs of a refugee until we take a minute to stand in her shoes.
Walk alongside women in Iraq and Syria as they remake their families and communities.
I want to give to empower women in Iraq and Syria.