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The Painful Reality Of What Happens To Women Who Are Migrants And Refugees

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By Lakshmi Puri:

Ensuring gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and the realisation of their human rights, must be a central driving force of the historic opportunity in addressing the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the Second World War.

Women make up approximately half of the 244 million international migrants and 21 million refugees worldwide. As both migrants and refugees, women have specific needs and vulnerabilities. They are often forced to move by root causes such as conflict, poverty and inequality, and face a series of challenges, which include psycho-social stress and trauma, health complications, physical harm and risk of exploitation. They often become separated from their families, and refugee women and adolescent girls can find themselves unexpectedly as head of a household.

Displaced and migrant women and girls are commonly subject to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. On top of gender-based discrimination, they may be targeted on additional grounds such as race, disability or belonging to a minority group. This discrimination limits women’s access to basic services and to decision-making processes, affecting their interactions within their households or communities, in the labour market, as well as their mobility – within and outside their countries of origin. Their voice and participation are frequently constrained and the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, an ever-present reality for all women worldwide, significantly increases.

Women make up approximately half of the 244 million international migrants and 21 million refugees worldwide. (Credit: UNHCR)

Despite discrimination and risks, women migrants and refugees contribute in important ways to the well-being of their countries of origin, destination and transit. They bring energy, innovation and cultural diversity to their new communities. As migrants, they fill key gaps in employment, contributing to keeping the economies of their countries of destination vibrant and productive. In their home countries, their remittances are a very important source of income for their families and boost productive activities, in addition to the new skills, which they can utilise at home upon return. As refugees, they protect and provide for their families, securing education for children, healthcare for all family members, and finding ways to earn or increase their income. These news roles that women – and often, adolescent girls – take on, can represent an opportunity for transformative change towards gender equality and women and girls gaining greater control over their lives and their futures. Women on the move must be seen as rights-holders and agents of development rather than as security threats.

The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants [that addresses the issues surrounding large movements of refugees and migrants and endorses a set of commitments and a global agenda for the future] provides a good starting point for a gender-responsive action agenda for addressing large movements of migrants and refugees. The Declaration commits UN Member States in ensuring that the “responses to large movements of refugees and migrants mainstream a gender perspective, promote gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and fully respect and protect the human rights of women and girls.” The Declaration vows to take into consideration the different needs, vulnerabilities and capacities of women, girls, boys, and men, and commits to tackling the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against refugee and migrant women and girls. More importantly, recognising the significant contribution and leadership of women in refugee and migrant communities, there is a commitment to work to ensure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the development of local solutions and opportunities.

The Declaration’s Annexes, which will govern actions in the coming years on refugees and migrants, set the stage for addressing the rights, needs and vulnerabilities of women and girl refugees and migrants and pave the way for their contributions to development and solutions through their meaningful participation in decision-making. They build on and expand global leaders’ 2015 commitments to sustainable development for all in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At UN Women, we are encouraged by the commitments that are captured in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Annexes.

In the coming months, as the debate continues and the global compact on migration and the global compact on refugees are discussed, let us work together to raise awareness and advocate for these global compacts to tap women’s agency; include them in programme design and decision-making that affect their lives; and engage them in crafting a global solution to ensure that their needs are addressed and their human rights upheld; to combat sexual and gender-based violence and ensure that services and resources are readily accessible to victims; to provide basic services for migrant and refugee women and girls including cash programming and safe and decent economic opportunities to allow them to support themselves; and to ensure that proper resources for these are allocated.

Often forced to move owing conflict, women refugees contend with many challenges brought on by poverty and inequality.
(Credit: UNHCR)

In the follow-up to the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, and particularly in the context of the consultations and negotiations towards the two global compacts to be adopted in 2018, the voices, participation and leadership of women from migrant and refugee communities will be the key to address and meet their specific psycho-social, health, and gender-specific needs.

No single state can manage large movements of refugees and migrants alone. We hold a shared responsibility to take a global approach to addressing large movements of migrants and refugees and to do so in a human rights-based and gender-responsive manner.

In the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and building on the global commitments of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, gender equality must be an important part of the strategy in every way. Let us work together to protect and empower all women and girls on the move.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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