"In Burma, I paid money to study English. Here, English feeds my stomach," says Yamin,* who works with her sister and another young Burmese woman at an upscale cafe in Malaysia. Yamin and her sister worked as dishwashers when they first arrived in Malaysia, but they left that job after facing sexual abuse by their boss. Between their waitressing and Yamin’s job as a translator for a local organization that serves other refugees, the sisters are able to make ends meet. But “those who do not speak English have a very hard time to find a job,” says Yamin.
Women and girls like Yamin make up more than 50 percent of the world’s forcibly displaced people. Thrown into often impossible situations, they are compelled to adopt new strategies to support themselves, and these new livelihood strategies can increase their risk of gender-based violence. Usually having fled with few resources and little preparation, refugee and other displaced women have no safety net to fall back on. In addition, they may become separated from or lose family members.
Lacking access to economic opportunities forces many displaced women and girls to resort to harmful measures to survive, such as commercial sex work. They often face a trade-off between their safety and their livelihood—and they usually must sacrifice the former. Most women in crisis situations actively seek money to survive, despite knowing the risks that having or earning money may bring.
The Women's Refugee Commission recognizes that women should be able to make informed decisions about their own wellbeing and that of their families. We believe that women themselves can best advise humanitarian agencies that are running livelihood programs on the scale and size of their risks and suggest ways to manage them. We advocate for those designing economic programs to involve women at all stages, from the initial start-up phase, through carrying out the project, to evaluating it after it's over.
Amplifying the voices of women who have been displaced, we identify promising practices, develop guidelines and train the humanitarian aid community on safe and effective interventions to improve and expand their livelihood options.
*Name changed for anonymity.