Heide Serra, like our other speaker focusing on gender, wants to start by saying that while today's focus will rest firmly on women and girls we still need to dispel myths that women aren't perpetrators and that men aren't victims of sexual violence. She works in an organization called AMICA and they do work mostly in East Europe and the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region – they'll be starting a project in Ukraine in the very near future.
But first some background information:
We're seeing the highest amount of displaced persons on record – every day, according to Heide, there are 44,400 more. 50% of refugees are under the age of 18. 70% of refugees reaching Europe are men – women don't have as much access to the resources that would allow them to leave. This could be in the form of money, or social freedom or something connected with potential dependents (children, family members relying on them). Families tend to invest more in men and boys, she finds, as they are seen to be likelier to make the tough passage over. On the other hand, 80% of refugees in Lebanon are women and children – they're often held in camps near the Syrian border.
There was a German study about women refugees in the country and they documented a number of reasons why they migrate. A lot of factors affect both sexes, like danger to life, the presence of war, terror, or fear of torture. But there are gender-based ones too. For men it's often a fear of forced recruitment or death, and for women it's a combination of things: honour killings, forced abortion, marriage, widow burnings, rape, domestic violence and sexual violence as a strategic weapon of war. These are often from women coming from Syria, Afghanistan or Iran.
When international refugee law was being drafted there was a particular image of who a refugee was: a man, often a political dissident needing to flee for his thoughts. Laws were drafted to meet those needs – but violence against women tends to be more hidden and you need a different approach entirely. At a conference she attended, Heide heard an international attorney say that maybe we need different definitions of war and violence for men and women because they're experienced so differently.
There are so many nuances that can be hard to catch without careful attention – did we know, for example, that sexual violence increases during ceasefires and negotiations? What makes this even more complicated is that gender-specific forms of violence is very difficult to prove. It often takes place in the private sphere, in families and in homes. Survivors may not even know they were subjected to forms of violence, structural violence or deprived of independence, money or freedom.
Some women find it acceptable to be abused – a good man hits his wife and all that. There are also taboos connected to shame, making it difficult for people to come out with their stories because they fear stigmatization. It could even mean a threat to their lives, as they've seen in Libya. For men it's also quite hard: there are less support structures and even less recognition that rape or sexual assault can happen to them. And as hard as this is, it's even harder to document gender-specific violence in times of conflict. The amount of civilian deaths in war has increased from 5% in WWII to 90% or more today. For a child in Aleppo it can be said to be safer to walk with a gun to the front line than to stay at home. Again, many of the dangers are gender specific: men face a higher risk of being killed or recruited, and women have a higher rate of abduction and rape.
Sometimes women in particular are targeted. There was a famous case of 200 schoolgirls being abducted by Islamist terrorists, or the systematic slavery and rape of Yazidi women in the Middle East. The money generated from the industry goes on to support the terrorist cause, and women too old for sex slavery are forced to work on farms harvesting food.