Women and Girls’ Access to Safe Sanitation in Refugee Camps

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SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — For refugees, accessing basic necessities is hard because of overcrowding, poor health facilities and lack of infrastructure. War and conflict drive refugees away from their homes, forcing refugees to face hunger, health problems and violence. In 2019, there were roughly 79.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problems refugees face by causing them to become even more vulnerable. One group of refugees that face a unique situation is female refugees. Because of sexual and gender-based violence, women and girls experience a unique set of risks. H.R. 1158 plans to help women and girls reach safe sanitation in refugee camps.

Difficulties Faced by Female Refugees

Refugees encounter many hardships while living in refugee camps. Ranging from overcrowding to lack of infrastructure to hunger and dehydration, refugee camps are harsh environments to live in. Female refugees, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, the disabled or the senior, live in uniquely vulnerable environments. One difficulty that female refugees face is access to menstrual hygiene products. Without proper menstrual products, female refugees settle for old clothing or diapers, which can cause skin rashes. Additionally, women and girls living in refugee camps face threats of sexual and gender-based violence.

For many female refugees, finding safe sanitation facilities can be difficult. Female refugees are at higher risk of sexual assault when they do not have access to bathrooms specifically designated for women. The camps often lack essentials such as locks, well-lit paths and privacy. This creates a dynamic in which women and girls feel fearful of assault and violence. It is essential for the health of women and girls to access safe sanitation facilities and to have their basic hygiene needs met.

COVID-19 and Sanitation in Refugee Camps

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of problems refugees face has increased worldwide. Because COVID-19 is a public health issue, proper sanitation facilities are more important than ever before. Many NGOs are working with refugee camps to provide basic hygiene and sanitation. While servicers are providing the basic hygiene tools needed to fight the virus, they are largely still ignoring women’s hygiene needs.

House Resolution 1158

One of the major problems female refugees face is sexual and gender-based violence because of the lack of safety structures in refugee camps. Representative Meng [D-NY6] and Representative Lee Zeldin [R-NY1] introduced House Resolution 1158: Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2021 on February 18, 2021. The bill has 30 cosponsors in total.

Meng is vice-chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. The resolution plans to provide women and girls secure access to sanitation facilities in refugee camps, without the fear of harm or violence. The resolution prioritizes women, girls and additional vulnerable populations. Organizations like Amnesty International USA, Refugees International and Human Rights First support the act.

Status of the Bill

On March 25, 2021, the House ordered the resolution to be reported by voice vote. Meng introduced the bill previously in 2019. The house passed the bill, however, but it did not go on to become law. Meng is hopeful that this year, the bill will finally become law. Zeldin said the bill is important for guaranteeing that U.S. foreign aid assists organizations that prioritize safe sanitation facilities. This bill is a vital step toward protecting women and girls.

Women and girls experience unique problems in refugee camps. Without access to safe sanitation in refugee camps, women and girls fear sexual and gender-based violence. H.R. 1158 would work to provide women and girls safe access to sanitation facilities. If H.R. 1158 becomes law, it will ensure the basic needs and safety of female refugees in refugee camps.

Bailey Lamb
Photo: Flickr

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