There have been a lot of sleepless nights at the Women's Refugee Commissionlately. Despite our best intentions of leaving work at work, our minds have been fixed on the Southern border, where a humanitarian crisis affecting primarily women and children is worsening by the day.
Because of extreme and intensifying violence and organized crime in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, women with young children -- some as young as infants -- are fleeing for their lives. These families are fleeing domestic violence, forced gang recruitment and the collapse of economic and social systems. Countries throughout the region have seen an increase in women and children seeking asylum. In the neighboring countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Belize, applications for asylum are up 712 percent. In the United States, Border Patrol stations are packed with exhausted, frightened families in need of immediate physical and psychosocial care. The vast majority of these families have harrowing tales to tell of being physically and emotionally abused by partners, or being threatened by gangs who tell them, "join or die."
The scale of violence committed against women and girls, mostly by men, constitutes a global crisis affecting all people and all societies. From physical and psychological abuse, rape and genital mutilation to exploitation and human trafficking, gender-based violence (GBV) has profound and long-lasting consequences for individuals, families and communities. Some of the worst atrocities may appear in the headlines, but the majority of survivors' stories go untold.
The global summit on sexual violence in conflict, convened last week by UK foreign secretary William Hague and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, provided an important platform for survivors to be heard and propelled the issue to the top of the international news agenda - at least for a few days.
"Please, can you explain to me, because I don't understand. Why is there this discrimination? Why do they differentiate between men and women? I don't understand why?"
(Kuwaiti woman married to a stateless man, who is unable to pass her Kuwaiti nationality to her children).
In 27 countries around the world, women are unable to pass on their nationality to their children, or to their non-national spouses, on an equal basis with men. In over 60 countries, women face discrimination in their ability to acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis with men. Such discrimination is in violation of international law and can have devastating consequences on women and their families.
Today in Geneva, the International Campaign to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws will be launched during the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
I was recently a panelist at a fascinating conference called "Advancing Women: Leadership in Our Lives." It was sponsored by Thomson Reuters and the Women's Refugee Commission, an organization which through a range of humanitarian efforts seeks to improve the lives and protect the rights of women, children, and youth displaced by conflict and crisis. I'm honored to sit on its board.
My fellow panelists were an amazing group of women with a vast amount of experience dealing with women's issues around the world. Despite our different lives and backgrounds, we're all working toward the same goal: empowering women. A mother struggling to keep her family fed in Sierra Leone, a schoolgirl in Pakistan trying to learn to read in order to advance herself, and a working woman in New York all face gender discrimination of some sort that hampers their ability to control their destinies, and in the most dreadful of situations places their lives at risk.
Few things prove our interconnectedness more than the environment and climate change. Our actions, both individual and collective, ripple through the ecosystem that we live in. Those very changes come back to us— in ripples, yes, and also in waves and in floods. Intensified by climate change, natural disasters have human causes and tragic human effects. Natural disasters currently account for more than 40 million of the world's displaced people, and the impact appears to be increasing each year. But they don’t have to.
Lawmakers are mad, and they should be. Advocates are mad, and they should be, too. Right now, incredibly vulnerable people are being put in harm's way every day in this country. Thousands of children are fleeing their homes in Central America and risking their lives by traveling―without parents or other adult relatives―to seek safety in the United States. These children are getting younger and younger, and more girls are making the journey in search of safety. Families traveling with small children are presenting themselves at our ports of entry to ask for asylum. These people are fleeing horrific violence perpetrated by organized criminals and gangs in their home countries. Their governments do not have the resources they need to protect their own citizens.
For over a month now, there has been an international outcry about the plight of the more than 200 school girls abducted by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram from their secondary school in Chibok, a remote town in northeast Nigeria. These are girls who are treasured by their families and communities; girls with aspirations to become teachers, doctors and lawyers.
Through social media activism, public rallies and demonstrations, the #bringbackourgirls campaign has garnered huge international support and attention as people around the world demand the girls' return. The injustice merits the outcry and advocacy. Yet this abduction is not the first time Boko Haram has attacked young girls for attending school: since 2009, it has abducted unknown number of girls, burned schools, killed teachers and threatened countless families who support their daughters' education.
Read the full blog on Trust.org
One third of the world's population—and a far greater percentage of its refugees and internally displaced persons —depend on fuel that is dangerous to collect and deadly to use. The new Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) Strategy, which the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) formally launched last week in Geneva, will save many lives that would be needlessly lost or broken. The strategy seeks to ensure that refugees and other vulnerable people can meet their energy needs in a safe and sustainable way.
Read the full blog on Trust.org.
“I really, really appreciate this workshop … I had no one to meet and talk to – no chance like this.” Soe Meh* was quiet and attentive, making valuable contributions while keeping a watchful eye on her baby as she was passed among many admirers. She presented her unique perspective to the participants attending the Women’s Refugee Commission/UNHCR workshop. As a young woman and mother with disabilities, she illuminated some of the challenges, skills and capacities that 6.7 million displaced persons with disabilities have in accessing and contributing to humanitarian programs.
Twenty-five years ago, a small group of women traveled from the United States to Hong Kong to bear witness to atrocities occurring in "closed camps" that were holding refugees who had fled Vietnam.
Actress and director Liv Ullmann was a member of the group. She recalls "barbed wired cities, thousands upon thousands of terrified people.... men, women and children crammed on top of each other, stacked together on shelves often three levels high. Like spoons in a drawer."
Shocked at the barbaric treatment of the refugees - 80% of whom were women and children - these dynamic women brought the situation to the world's attention and returned to the United States with a clear demand: that the humanitarian community listen to, and truly address the needs of, refugee women and children.