TACOMA, Washington — On June 17, 2020, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced the Keeping Women and Girls Safe From the Start Authorization Act of 2020. This legislation is a response to the largest refugee crisis in history and aims to increase the U.S. and international response to gender-based violence during humanitarian emergencies. The bill also seeks to instate leadership and empowerment opportunities for women living through conflicts as a method of prevention in addition to increased protections. The senators that introduced this bill feel the U.S. has a moral obligation to help those who are vulnerable, and as more and more people flee conflicts, more women and girls become vulnerable to violence.
Gender and Sexual Violence in Refugee Camps
While gender and sexual violence are often tactics of war that drive people from their homes, crowded and often dangerous refugee camps have become grounds for this violence to continue as opposed to providing a safe place. The bill states that “nearly one in five women affected by a humanitarian emergency report experiencing sexual violence during such emergencies.” Despite these high numbers, between 2016 and 2018, funding for gender-based violence represented only 0.12% of all humanitarian aid.
In 2017, the UNCHR found that from the 622 reported cases of sexual assault in Greek refugee communities, 30% occurred after the women arrived in Greece. In the Rohingya refugee camps, many women are assaulted prior to fleeing but when they arrive at camps, male leaders and a lack of privacy in health clinics prevent women from seeking out help and resources. Lack of privacy has been cited as an issue for women across most refugee camps, especially bathroom privacy.
Many Rohingya women also turn to prostitution during humanitarian crises to provide for themselves but lack sexual health services and alternative means of income. Another UNHCR report from Central America cited multiple interviews with women claiming that they began and packed birth control before leaving their homes so that if they were raped they would not get pregnant.
The act will address post-rape medical care as well as STDs, pregnancy and psychological damages. It will also fund programs that empower survivors of sexual assault and work with gender-violence experts to establish prevention methods and a culture of safety in the camps, including setting up systems of accountability for humanitarian personnel.
Addressing Forced Marriages in Refugee Camps
As refugee camps become increasingly dangerous for women and girls, many are forced into marriage as a means of protection. The bill recognized “intimate partner violence” and “child marriage” cases increased during crises and vows to provide solutions. Daughters are forced to marry for protection and means of adjusting to a new country. A U.N. survey of 2,400 Syrian refugees found that one-third of women refugees between the ages of 20 to 24 were married before 18, and 24% of girls ages 15 to 17 were already married.
One mother reported she felt she had no choice but to marry off her daughter as she could not support her or her other children as a widow. This same report also found that girls with less education were more vulnerable to child marriage. The Keeping Women and Girls Safe From the Start Act will use education, economic opportunity and skill-building to prevent this practice from continuing.
The Keeping Women and Girls Safe From the Start Act of 2020 will provide increased support to humanitarian organizations led by women and focus on women to promote safety and equal opportunities. The act also plans to include women and girls who have lived through humanitarian crises in the design and execution of aid, providing not only critical insight into the realities of refugee camps but also to promote the “active leadership” of women. Further strategies include skill development and advocacy training for women so they can succeed during and after living in the camps.
Prevention, empowerment, active response and accountability define the Keeping Women and Girls Safe From the Start Act. Should it pass, it may serve as an example of how helping the world’s most vulnerable does not mean belonging to one side of the political aisle.