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Talking About Stateless Women Refugees As A Pandemic Wreaks Havoc

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Sar-zameen-e-hind par aqwam-e-alam ke ‘firaq’, qaafile baste gaye hindustan banta gaya

(Firaq, caravans of people from all parts of the world kept passing through, that led to the formation of India)~ Firaq Gorakhpuri

The above lines by the famous writer, Firaq Gorakhpuri (Raghupati Sahay), seem true not only for the development of India as a nation but for the whole world. It’s the people from all over the world that shape the cultural landscape of any country and/or society. The people who travel from one place to another have been defined as ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, and so forth. However, migration of refugees is mostly due to forceful exodus from one State owing to political and social upheavals. 

In the new era of modern globalisation, refugees (mostly termed as “illegal migrants”) and stateless people are stuck with discrimination from the mainstream society of almost every country. There is a stigma attached to their identity of being an “outsider”, “illegal” and so on. Though the refugee crisis has affected the lives of millions, it’s the women who have to face the undeniable heavy costs due to their vulnerabilities in the hyper-masculine world especially amidst Covid-19. Several organisations are making efforts for refugees but we need to do much more for the cause. 

rohingya refugee child
Representational image.

The Concept Of Refugees

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, “a Refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. 

Due to the mass exodus from one country to another, they are denied statehood and citizenship rights which adds to their misery. Sometimes, there is a fear of cartographic anxiety as well, where they are not sure as to which territory they belong.

An example that could be cited is the borders between India and Pakistan. One of the founding fathers of Sociology, Emile Durkheim, describes society as a bond arising from collectivity or collective consciousness. Taking a cue from him, T.K. Oomen (JNU Professor Emeritus) rightly observed that this collectivity leads to the exclusion of those who are different from us. He has explained in his work ‘Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity that citizenship based on elements of dominant identity results in the exclusion of people on the basis of religion, caste, ethnicity, language and race.

Thus, sociologically, refugees are excluded groups of people that pay a price of being culturally different and diverse from the dominant groups. 

As per United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees(UNHCR), refugees are estimated to be approximately 70 million globally. They form the most vulnerable group of our society. In fact, they suffer hugely from poverty, discrimination, diseases and disasters. The countries pay minimal heed to their needs and they are also being neglected by the mainstream media and population at a large.

However, the UNHCR, formed after World War II, has taken a responsible approach towards creating awareness and support to the most marginalised sections of the newly globalised society. In one of the University lectures at Delhi University, one Professor rightly professed that movement of goods is given more priority than the movement of people in bilateral relations among international communities. The point is to acknowledge that “social vulnerabilities are mostly kept aside in the global power game”.

This reality needs to be changed and policies ought to be laid keeping in mind the most underprivileged communities. 

Refugee Crisis Amidst Covid-19 

There were already many issues being faced by refugees, stateless and asylum seekers. Covid-19 has expanded these challenges.

The problems before Covid-19 were manyfold:  ranging from health, education, shelter, basic amenities to alienation, psychological breakdown, disintegration from society and so on. Because of their forceful departure from one region to another, they reside in temporary settlements such as detention centres, reception centres, formal and informal camps. These settlements are mostly congested and less hygienic adding to their susceptibility to Covid-19 infections.

Syrian, Iraqi, Rohingya refugees are some examples who are at the gravest threat. There is general anxiety among the refugees with this new pandemic because it requires social distancing which is far from possible in their temporary shelters which consists of many people together in a closed space. There is a lack of access to sanitisers, soaps and also nutritious food. They are also stigmatized as “carriers of diseases” because of their crowded settlement.

The Gendered Perspective

Feminist theorists and several sociologists have differentiated between “sex” and “gender”. Accordingly, we find that sex is a term that defines the biological attributes of human beings. How is sex different from “gender”? Gender is a social construction. It is a term that is used to define the roles of different sexes. For example, a boy as a breadwinner and a girl as a caregiver. It is created socially based on patriarchal norms that design social systems through the conceptualization of dominance of men in the society.

The sex of a person doesn’t inhibit them to perform roles as this is just a biological connotation. However, gender describes roles, rules and regulations for different sexes. According to Sylvia Walby (British Sociologist), Patriarchy, which means the dominance of men in the society, is the central reason for the construction of gendered norms that stereotypes the roles of sexes in society. 

Refugees have a lack of access to sanitisers, soaps and also nutritious food. Photo: New Security Beat

As a woman, I have no country, as a woman, I want no country and as a woman, my country is the whole world,” said Virginia Woolf. Through these lines, Woolf tried to make people aware of the condition peculiar to women around the world. Women are considered second citizens globally. They are the ones who had to even fight for voting rights that were naturally offered to men. Though a lot of things have changed due to women’s movement and progressive thinking, the condition of women is still not upto the mark.

Taking the case of the refugee crisis, it’s the women who are the most affected group. They face twin problems: First is “exclusion” from the domains of economic independence, decision making, health, education and; second is “social norms that stereotype their bodily manifestation” due to which they face harassment, rapes, domestic violence and trafficking as well. 

Socially, women are treated as inferior to men because of the traditional norms present in society. Patricia Uberoi, an eminent sociologist, in her book Family, Kinship and Marriage in India’, articulates the position of women vis-a-vis men in society right from the birth of a woman. She points out that those women who give birth to males are given more power in the household by mother-in-law as compared to those women who give birth to females.

In prosperous regions like Punjab and Maharashtra, the sex ratio is highly skewed due to the son-meta preference. Even after the enactment of laws like The Widow Remarriage Act, The Dowry Prohibition Act, The Preconception and Prenatal Act, women’s emancipation is a little above average only. Why? Because of the ingrained mindset that is prevalent among the members of the society.

The above social norms are important to describe as they are directly connected to the issue of the suffering of female refugees. As per National Health Family Survey(NFHS-4), more than 50% of women are anaemic. These are the official records. If we think of unofficial, in my opinion, data can go up to 70%, and refugee records are not calculated. Therefore, taking in mind the health perspective, female refugees are the ones who have to face many problems.

Representational image. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Sanitation is one area where women require extra care. However, they are not provided with that care. They become the target of physical and sexual violence due to behavioural norms. The frustrated refugees(males), individually or in a group, rape women. In the cases of armed conflict, the militant rapes women and often takes them as slaves. One of the reports also mentions the incidents of rape by the official of humanitarian groups.

More often than not, they had to face violence within the family as that has been normalised in the world. This normalisation can be related to the recently released Tapsi Pannu starrer movie “Thappad“.  The movie showed how in a well literate family, violence over women by men should be taken as normal which in reality is abuse. Thus, if we compare, it’s unimaginable to conclude the scale and intensity of violence which could be faced by unsecured, vulnerable women in camps.

In this situation of Covid-19, these female refugees are denied essential services such as secure sanitation, proper nutritious food, health services by doctors, and are facing more violence and stigma.  Therefore, it’s important to take the gender perspective in mind while formulating solutions for refugees during covid-19.

It is here, in times of perpetuation of violence, it’s important to remember Mahatma Gandhi. He had not only propagated against physical violence but all types of violence: be it emotional, verbal and psychological. Gautam Buddha, known for his egalitarian principles, preached equality among all beings. He said that women and men can be differentiated by their body parts but this differentiation isn’t supposed to create inequality. A woman is equally capable of activities that a man can do.

In Mahabharata, it has been shown that the fight was for the women’s respect as the Kauravas had disrespected Draupadi. The fight was to make society understand that disrespecting women is not the right conduct. A well known Philosopher, Immanuel Kant observed that human beings ought to be provided dignity for they are ends in themselves and not a means to an end.

Despite these epics’ messages and words of leaders and philosophers, societal norms are hindering women’s aspiration for dignity and respect. However, the ideas are changing and these changed ideas should also need to be spread across disadvantaged groups like those of refugee camps. 

Efforts By Government, NGOs And International Organizations

Though India has not signed and ratified the Refugee Convention of 1951, it has rehabilitated refugees who have come from Pakistan during partition through the newly launched Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. Indian Government has also repatriated some Tamilian refugees from Sri Lanka. However, it is often argued that this repatriation was forceful after the assassination of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In 2015, the Indian Government gave citizenship rights to Hindu and Sikh migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 is being criticised by scholars due to the religious tone given to citizenship rights. 

The members of the National Service Scheme, under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, collect necessary items and donate them to the camps found at the outskirts of cities. Different NGOs are delivering essentials to the refugees that are in camps. International organisations such as UNHCR works towards the provision of services such as drinking water, shelter, transportation and basic amenities to the refugees. 

The Way Forward 

First and foremost is the signing and ratification of the UN Refugee Convention that are required by the Indian Government. The other countries should also sign it who have not done so till now.

The second step is to reduce the stigma attached to their identity. The usage of more inclusive terminology is required. For example, using “vulnerable migrants” instead of “illegal migrants”. A more humane approach by the mainstream groups, top leaders and policymakers is the need of the hour. 

Thirdly, there needs to be a robust economic policy for refugees to include them in the social strata. For that, data needs to be collected from UNHCR about the location and estimated number of refugees in our country. Gandhiji’s constructive programme can be used for economic inclusion: employing refugees in labour-intensive industries like textile, leather, food processing, green jobs, construction works and part-time skill upgradation on the job site itself.

A temporary identity card could be given to them for assurance of basic services like food, health, safety and temporary but safe and secure shelters until they are sent safely to their country of origin. Amidst Covid-19, they could be employed as health workers too after giving basic training. 

Fourthly, along with including them in the society’s development, governments all over the world should consider testing(for Covid-19)of refugees as mandatory as they are living in the most vulnerable situation now. We should note that they should not be left behind in this crisis.

Every challenge gives birth to an opportunity. This is the time that we can make use of the opportunity of realising the world as a global village and humanity as above all – caste, creed, race, religion and gender. Each and every country should come up with a comprehensive policy of refugee inclusion. Those who want to repatriate voluntarily to their country of origin should be allowed for the same.

Those who want to stay in the country of destination should be given opportunities right there itself. For this to become successful, international organisations and all the countries need to come together and contribute financially for the cause.

For the female refugees, policymakers should consider providing them adequate sanitation facilities along with the availability of sanitary pads, safe disposal of the pads and taking due care of their reproductive health. The law and order of the States should be vigilant in reducing sexual assaults and appropriate female police forces need to be deputed for their safety and complaints registration.

Last but not least is the need for awareness campaigns to bring them close to the people of their country of destination. Reduction of “stigma” and “othering”(exclusion)should also be given a clear thought.

Conclusion

In spite of huge sufferings by the refugee, stateless and asylum seekers, there is hope for a better future for all and that none would be left behind if we all work together. An ethical and compassionate approach towards humanity in general and refugees, in particular, would help the world to bring progressive transformation. International Organizations need to pay special attention to female refugees in this situation of a pandemic.

The idea of universal citizenship is a point to think upon so as to reduce the plight of our fellow human beings whom we have separated through the contours of physical and social borders. 

Excerpts from Rabindra Tagore’s Geetanjali :

Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free, where the world has not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,…into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. 

The above poem by Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore should be the guiding path for the globe for emancipating refugees and bringing equality among different sections of society.

Featured image credit: Hasib Zuberi /@UNHCRAsia / Twitter
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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.

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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