How Has Covid-19 Impacted Refugee Women?
Trigger warning: this article will refer to gender-based violence against women. Feel free to skip if you could be affected by this.
In our society, identity is extremely important. The way we perceive ourselves and how we are viewed by others is shaped by our lived experiences; a person is never one thing, but is instead a compilation of identities that intersect. The characteristics that define us affect the way we are treated by society. The privileges and hardships we face depend on the system and culture we live in.
Refugee women are affected by many intersecting characteristics that have made them one of the more vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. These women face three main threats. Firstly, their gender, it is well-known that women are disadvantaged in society due to patriarchal systems that oppress and stereotype them. They are also often discriminated against or not taken as seriously as men. The second threat is race, as many refugee women come from the Global South and may be considered women of colour, sometimes leading to stigmatisation and discriminatory treatment from others, especially if they have arrived in a host country with a hostile view of refugees.
The third threat that refugee women face is lower economic status and poverty, as many leave everything behind and have no economic support. All these factors impact refugee women’s experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Refugee women and gender-based violence
Refugee women are often victims of gender-based violence perpetrated by officials and figures of authority in refugee camps. On top of this, with the growing number of people secluded and contained in the camps, there are fewer resources to oversee the security of the people living there. This has led to women being subject to gender violence perpetrated by other refugees in the camps.
"1 in 5 refugee or internally displaced women faced sexual violence in 2021"
In 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that one in five refugee or internally displaced women had faced sexual violence and this number does not seem to be decreasing. With travel restrictions and slow asylum processes, women are trapped in these camps with aggressors, putting them in constant danger of being harmed when no-one is looking. The social isolation that has been established as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 has minimised the access to available resources and support services. In 2020, the Global Protection Cluster reported a 90% increase in gender-based violence cases in their operations, including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Refugee women and education
In the pre-pandemic world, refugee women were already disadvantaged compared to their male peers, but the pandemic has made it even harder for them to get an education. As schools move to online formats, access to a stable internet connection and a device to work from makes education harder for refugee girls who cannot afford this equipment or those who are waiting for these resources to become available in refugee camps.
Nonetheless, there are examples of hope for young girls, as is the case in Jordan’s Azraq camp. The girls took the initiative to teach people how to make their own face masks through handicraft and many have joined Youth Committees in UNHCR camps. They are also running workshops on mental health and well-being. In Tanzanian refugee camps, women with skills and experience are acting as mentors and engaging with younger children in peer-to-peer activities.
The pandemic has deprived many young refugee women of a proper education as institutions have closed and travel restrictions have prevented them from travelling elsewhere. Nonetheless, they have taken the opportunity to teach others valuable skills and to also engage with activities at the refugee camps as a way of making their voices heard.
Refugee women and health
Hygiene conditions in refugee camps have always been far from satisfactory but now, with staff shortages and less cleaning resources available, refugee camps have become a harbour of diseases. Consequently, COVID-19 can spread more easily in very crowded places and the medication shortage makes it harder to treat symptoms. What’s more, refugee women often suffer from weakened immune systems as a result of undernourishment, bad hygiene habits and lack of clean water.
Pregnant refugee women are at higher risk of falling ill, as COVID-19 makes them a vulnerable group, and they do not have the necessary medication to treat COVID-19 infections or to support them during pregnancy. With no access to a medical professional, being a pregnant refugee during the pandemic can be life-threatening. Even if the pregnancy goes well, giving birth in poor conditions with no post-natal medication or without someone to help during the birth, pregnancy can claim the life of the baby or the mother. If all goes well with the birth, the baby must be protected from many risks, one of them now being COVID-19 infection. Taking care of a newborn baby is tiring and may take a toll on the carer; they may not be ready to do so or do not have the means to nourish and raise the child.
What’s more, refugee women are being discriminated against when it comes to getting the vaccine. In many countries, it is seen as more important to vaccinate men so they can return to work, while women are being disregarded. In other cases, national vaccination plans disregard refugees because of their immigration status or the cost of healthcare is too high to be vaccinated.
Refugee women and money
Refugee women’s purchasing power is lower than other people’s thus limiting the number of resources available to them. Having to purchase medication and pay for healthcare means that refugee women may have to compromise. Often, they need to risk their own well-being for their children or for people they care for. As resources are limited in refugee camps, prices for things can be too high, while refugees who have relocated to foreign countries have to pay large sums of money to get the treatments they need. The pandemic has left many people unemployed, which has deepened economic inequalities around the world. In the case of refugee women, this translates to living in poverty and not being able to afford healthcare, food and basic necessities.
Equally, they often do not have savings and lack economic resources to put towards their education which leaves them in a disadvantaged position in society. With a limited education and little money to invest in career-preparing courses, refugee women are limited to low-paying jobs, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in which they live because higher-earning jobs require a certain level of education. This is particularly problematic for refugee women who are caregivers or providers for their families; they are under economic and mental strain because the huge responsibility of supplying every need is placed on them.
The intersection between being a refugee and a woman plays out in their jobs too. In some patriarchal societies, women are discriminated against in certain jobs and are many times ignored or not taken seriously. A third intersection comes in if the woman is of a different race to her work environment because stereotypes and stigmas can perpetuate discriminatory behaviour from her colleagues.
What you can do to help
Refugee women are suffering the effects of the pandemic much more than many, as a vulnerable group in society. The triple threat of gender, race and economic status leaves them subject to hardship and discrimination. However, there are things you can do to help and support them:
Support and spread the word about opportunities to get help and support through Refugee Women Connect for refugees based in the UK.
Donate things you don’t need any more or volunteer with different charities that can use an extra hand. A list can be found here.
Stay informed of what your city and country are doing to address the problems concerning refugee women.
Email your MP to do better by refugee communities in your area.
Participate in fundraising activities or donations to support organisations that are trying to help refugee women.
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean