COVID-19 pandemic worsening gender inequalities for refugee women and girls

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the lives and rights of refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is warning on International Women’s Day today.

“The unprecedented socio-economic impacts of the pandemic are leaving many lives in peril. We are seeing extremely worrying increases in reports of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriages, child labour and adolescent pregnancies,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

These are being attributed to burgeoning socio-economic pressures, increased tensions in homes and communities, and school closures, all induced as a result of pandemic-related poverty. Some survivors are even resorting to the drastic measure of withdrawing their complaints owing to economic dependency on abusive partners.

“We are seeing grave manifestations of gender inequality for some of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged and a tragic erosion of some important and hard-won gender equality gains achieved over the past few decades,” said Grandi.

“The international community must step up and help protect the rights of forcibly displaced and stateless women and girls. This requires support for humanitarian programmes that combat gender inequality, including gender-based violence, and also the expansion of education, and vocational and self-reliance initiatives. It is imperative that they are also included in the socio-economic relief packages being designed and implemented by governments.”

Around 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing nations and largely dependent on humanitarian aid or day labour. Many have now lost fragile livelihoods and have been thrust into abject poverty with disastrous and wide-ranging impacts.

“In addition to the mounting risks of violence, abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking, all of which are consequences of gender inequality, the effects of the pandemic are also proving catastrophic on refugee girls’ education. Many girls are being forced to drop out of school and into work, sold off or married,” said UNHCR’s protection chief, Gillian Triggs.

While humanitarian partners estimate that an additional 13 million girls are now at risk of forced marriages as a result of the pandemic, child marriages are already being resorted to by some refugee families buckling under debilitating poverty.

Refugee women are also being burdened with extra caregiving at home, turning to precarious jobs in the informal sector, or onto the streets. Increased household demands are also diminishing their opportunities for education while increasing exposure to the virus.

“Disabilities, marginalization, diverse sexual orientation and gender identities are also compounding discrimination and risks of violence for refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls,” said Triggs.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic fuelling gender inequalities and increasing the risks of violence against women and girls, prevention and response programmes remain severely underfunded.

UNHCR is urging attention be paid immediately by governments to these risks and to support the full involvement and leadership of refugee, displaced and stateless women in response and recovery plans.

The active and meaningful participation of women and girls in the decisions that impact their lives, families and communities is essential for upholding their human rights, ensuring their effective protection and supporting their empowerment.

“Unless concerted efforts are made to mitigate the gendered impacts of COVID-19, we risk leaving refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls behind,” said Triggs.



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