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Pittaway, Eileen; Pittaway, Emma --- "Refugee Woman': A Dangerous Label: Opening A Discussion the Role of Identity and Intersectional Oppression in the Failure of the International Refugee Protection Regime For Refugee Women." [2004] AUJlHRights 20; (2004) 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 20

‘Refugee woman’: a dangerous label

Opening a discussion on the role of identity and intersectional oppression in the failure of the international refugee protection regime for refugee women

Eileen Pittaway and Emma Pittaway*

It is widely acknowledged that the majority of refugee women experience rape and sexual and gender based violence as part of the refugee experience. This paper is based on research currently being undertaken in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, examining the occurrence of sexual and gender based violence experienced by refugee women and the inadequacy of the international protection regime to address this phenomena. It is acknowledged that it is a complex and multidimensional problem. Here, just one aspect, that of the concept of identity and intersectional layers of oppression, is used to explore the failure of the International refugee protection regime to protect many refugee women seeking asylum in camps and other refugee sites. It is argued that the label of ‘refugee woman’, which carries with it multiple intersecting and compounding layers of oppressions, in itself becomes a major risk factor leading to the rape and sexual abuse experienced by so many refugee women. Others facets of the phenomena will be explored in the course of the research in an attempt to identify a comprehensive solution to the protection needs of refugee women and girls.

Who am I? I am a refugee. I am ...

a dirty woman, hopeless, a hungry person, an ignorant person, a troublesome person, yet again another burden for the world to feed, another burden for the world to care, that is who they say we are ...


being a refugee is not by choice, if it is a choice I wouldn’t be a refugee anywhere. Looking at myself, I believe I am not a victim, but I am a survivor, a very strong person, a refugee woman.

Sudanese Woman, Resettled in Australia, ANCORW & AWHRC, Sydney 2001.


There is a growing acknowledgment of the gendered experience of refugee women and their extreme vulnerability to systematic rape and other forms of sexual and gender based violence (Africa Watch 1993, Seifert 1999, Ward 2002). The office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has produced excellent guidelines for the prevention of sexual abuse of refugee women (2001a) in order to address the issue and to strengthen the protection of refugee women. Despite these measures the international refugee protection regime (IRPR)1 fails to protect numerous women in refugee camps and urban refugee sites around the world. Many of these women endure serious human rights violations, and harsh conditions in often squalid camps, with less access to resources and avenues of social support than refugee men. In many countries, refugee women in camps and refugee conclaves experience rape, gender based violence and sexual torture, often resulting in unwanted pregnancies, abandonment, health problems, HIV/AIDS, social ostracism, death and murder.

This paper is part of a major research project conducted by the Centre for Refugee Research at the University of New South Wales, examining the protection needs of refugee women at risk, and the international response to these women. The findings so far have indicated that a major risk factor for many refugee women is the failure of the IRPR, and that this is a multifaceted problem. The hypothesis explored in this paper addresses just one of these facets: that of the role identity and intersectional oppression. Other facets still under consideration include the role of citizenship, the attitudes and ideologies held by service providers, the root causes of refugee generation — that is, why people become refugees — the role of discourse, and notions of ‘cosmopolitan responsibility’ (Canney 2001) and culpability. These facets will be more fully examined in the continuing work of the research project.

Drawing on the case study of Sudanese and Somali women in Kakuma camp in Kenya, the authors explore how social identities locate refugee women at the crossroad of a range of intersectional oppressions. It explores how the process of identity creation can be seen as a contributing factor to the sexual violence experienced by the women, and explores the impact of the label ‘refugee woman’ on the lives of women in camps. Using the concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘intersectional oppressions’, it examines some of the reasons for the atrocities that continue to be committed against women in camp situations. This designated identity both affects and is affected by the attitudes held by those who have the mandate to implement the IRPR and the specific guidelines to protect refugee women from sexual and gender based violence. It sheds light on the often inadequate adequate and effective legal-political status to many refugees under the IRPR. It argues that the imposed identity label of ‘refugee women’ and the oppressions subsumed within that label are a key element in the failure of protection of refugee women, perpetuating the discourse which confers impunity and social tolerance on perpetuators of sexual violence.

The case study — refugee women in Kakuma Camp, Kenya

Kakuma refugee camp is located about 120 kilometres from Kenya’s north-western border with Sudan, in an arid, isolated region that suffers year round high temperature extremes and chronic water shortages. It is currently home to approximately 88,000 predominately Sudanese and Somali refugees, many of whom have been there for over 10 years, with no immediate prospects of returning home.

Conditions in the camp are among the worst in the world, and the refugees are almost entirely dependent on international aid for their survival. There is little arable land and there are limited opportunities for economic development. It has been estimated that at best only 15 per cent of the population in Kenya’s refugee camps have access to an income source other than the weekly food rations provided by the World Food Program (Crisp 2000).

The degree to which safe asylum or effective international protection is achieved for refugees in Kakuma is highly questionable (Africa Watch 1993; Crisp 2000; Hyndman 2000). The camp is characterised by high levels of insecurity and violence, and refugee women are particularly vulnerable. Rape and sexual assault is endemic and the incidence of domestic violence is extremely high (Crisp 2000; Human Rights Watch 2000; Hyndman 2000; Pittaway & Bartolomei 2002; UNHCR 2001a & 2002). The abduction and sale of young girls as brides, the forced marriage of widows and the physical and sexual abuse of those in mixed marriages are commonplace. There are regular reports of rape and sexual mutilation of refugee women by gangs of the local Tukarna men. Victims of these rapes, especially those who give birth to babies, are stigmatised and harassed by their own communities and are in urgent need of protection. Increasingly, women are infected with HIV/AIDS, which causes local discrimination as well as precluding their resettlement to many countries, including Australia.

Lacking any alternative sources of income, many refugee women are forced to sell sex in order to survive. These women are used by those men in the camp who have access to money and food rations. These include refugee men, members of the police and local Tukarna men, as well as men employed by NGOs and international agencies. There have been documented reports of refugee women who have been exploited, raped and sexually abused by both UN peace keepers and members of the security forces (Pittaway & Bartolomei 2002).

For many of these women and children there is simply no protection available. Despite the recent establishment of a system of mobile courts and the successful prosecution of some of the perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence, the abuse and violence continue with almost complete impunity (UNHCR 2001a). Apart from the 13 beds offered in a safe house managed by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), the only other option available to women who experience ongoing abuse and harassment is to seek protection in the UNHCR protection area. This is a compound enclosed by barbed wire in which about 150 families, mainly headed by women, are accommodated in rotting canvas tents. Many women have lived there for four to five years; some have been there for eight years. Women confined in this area have no opportunity to access camp educational services or develop any income generating activities. Although for most of these women resettlement is the only durable solution, very few achieve this (Pittaway & Bartolomei 2002).

The conditions endured by women at Kakuma highlight a worldwide trend: the failure of the IRPR to ensure the well being of refugee women in camp situations. In order to meet the urgent need to address this failure, the research which generated this paper seeks the answers to two critical questions that emerge from the case study. The first is why, in response to the social chaos of camps such as Kakuma, refugee women and children continually experience sexual and gender based violence, especially rape and sexual torture. The second is why the seemingly well intentioned IRPR is failing to ensure the safety of these women. A partial understanding can be gained through an examination of the roles played by identity and intersectional oppressions in the social experience of refugee women.

Understanding identity — the multiplicity of identities

[W]hen we look to the sources of identity, we cannot look to one set of conditions or one definition to serve all our needs: cultural, ethical, national and gender identity all have their own dynamics, which shift according to who does the telling. Thus, the term ‘identity’ does not equate simply with ‘self’, nor does it equate simply with any other terms like ‘race’, ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ [Janack 1999].

Contemporary theorists recognise that the individual subject is made up of multiple fluid, interwoven identities (Allen 1998; Fearon & Laitin 2000; Isin & Wood 1999; Janack 1999). Identity is not a fixed, static entity; rather, it is a dynamic process resulting from our engagement with our social environment; it is a ‘social product located in time and space’ (Allen 1998, 50). As such, identities are always temporary, fragmented, unstable and at times contradictory: the effects of shifting relations between individuals or groups (Isin & Wood 1999).

Identity is a socio-cultural group marker. It makes little sense to talk about an individual’s identity without speaking of their process of identification within, and corresponding exclusion from, certain social groups. An individual who identifies herself as a woman also defines herself as not-a-man; if she identifies as being a member of a particular tribe she defines herself as not of another tribe; if she identifies herself as of a certain religion she defines herself as not belonging to a different religion. These separate but overlapping identities are the results of relational processes which affiliate the individual with particular socio-cultural groups. Depending on the particular social circumstances at a given time, one or another identity is brought to the fore: one’s primary identity therefore changes according to the social environment.

A refugee woman is often seen by the world through the lens of international media as a person of pity and vulnerability, a victim of violence, in need of food and protection. However, each refugee woman also carries a number of different identities which each become relevant at different times and in different situations. As a woman her gender identity may give her status and a sense of self esteem as the mother of children or as a wife. Within the family or community it may entitle her to certain respect or protection. It may also be used to deny access to education and decision making. It is her gender which makes her vulnerable to violence and rape in conflict situations and to be forced to trade sex for her UN food rations (Africa Watch 1993; Crisp 2003; Friedman 1992; Human Rights Watch 2000; Mocellin 1994).

While viewed as a refugee she may be an object of pity, but as a woman she may also be a person of great bravery, who has taken part in political struggles, protected her family, and who maintains cultural and family unity in situations of extreme danger. As a refugee she may be poor and in need of international charity in order to feed her family. She may also be a skilled healer, someone who has sustained and raised her family with no outside help until she was forced to flee, and who has the skills and determination to be self-reliant again. Within her ethnic group she may be a leader, a person of respect, but if her ethnic group is one discriminated against by the mainstream community in which they exist, her status in that wider community will be of a marginalised community, regardless of her status within the group.

Thus, not only do we all bear multiple identities, but the response from the external world to these identities shifts and changes depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. Identity is a political concept; it is formed by minority or marginalised groups seeking to define themselves as well as by majority groups seeking domination. While on the one hand it has been described as ‘an ongoing struggle for recognition waged by various groups around the world against each other as well as against the hegemonic “other”’ (Isin & Wood 1999, 15), identities can also be imposed by a dominant majority seeking to legitimate the status quo.

The individual is thus both the agent and the bearer of her identities, which arise from processes both internal to her and beyond her agency in her social environment. The nature of identities as sites of power struggles, and the tendency to draw boundaries between us and others in the process, makes identity the cause of much conflict, disharmony and even inhumanity. Identity is used as a primary tool of oppression, and when the forces of oppression become too great, the individual’s self-associated identities are subsumed under the imposed labels of the oppressing group. This forced dominance of one identity label over the multiple identities of the individual leads to a shift in their relation to society. Her ‘social face’ is narrowed to one primary identifier, which becomes the defining feature of her interactions with others, and eventually herself.

In many cases, however, such as in the case of refugee women, people suffer from multiple oppressions simultaneously. It is often so that several of a woman’s identities are discriminated against at the same time, such as if she happens to belong to a marginalised group or an oppressed race or religion, or if she is a refugee, in addition to being a woman. In this case it is the combination of oppressive labels which determines her social experience. This is the concept of intersectionality.

Understanding intersectionality

An intersectional analysis [of oppression] involves an analysis of a situation from a perspective based on the understanding that we all have shifting and multiple identities [Abeysekera 2002].

A refugee woman has a gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, a socio-economic and a socio-legal status, all of which are political identities making up her subject position. The experiences endured by refugee women are not caused by discrimination against one, or some, or even all of these identities, but by the irreducible oppression caused by the compounded effects of discrimination against them all. To fully understand the experiences suffered by refugee women, it is necessary to analyse and understand how multiple oppressions and discriminations are intertwined with their multiple identities, and how this impacts on their lives and their ability to access human rights (Real, Aggarwal & Pasimio 2002).

Feminist analysis has previously focused on the idea of multiple layers of discrimination, and acknowledged the fact that many women suffer from many different types of discrimination simultaneously. The notion of intersectionality challenges the idea of ‘layers’ of oppression and discrimination. This concept suggests that it should be possible to separate the layers and address the issues one by one. Experience has taught that this is not effective, because it ignores the compound effect of being subjected to multiple discriminations. Intersectionality examines the way in which different oppressions weave together and compound the effects of each. This synergistic consequence means that effect of the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

To use this model as an analytical tool, we must unpack and explore the origin of the oppressions and the impact of these on women across a range of situations. Refugee situations are produced by racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, by the aftermath of colonisation, by racist policies and law. Refugee women are affected due to discrimination on the grounds of their sex and because of their membership in a marginalised group. They suffer specifically gendered atrocities that are not shared by refugee men in the same social group, in particular rape, sexual torture and sexual exploitation, and lack of income generating and resettlement opportunities. These are not individual occurrences or events with separate root causes that can be traced back to one or another of the discriminations faced by refugee women. They are all inseparably and intricately linked, and are both the cause and effect of the intersectional oppressions experienced by refugee women.

Identities and intersectional oppressions in the experience of refugee women

Most wars and conflict situations can be understood in part as the result of identity politics, and refugees are commonly the casualties of identity clashes, be they national, racial, ethnic, religious or political in nature. When a group of people is persecuted, tortured, killed, raped and driven out of their homes by another group of people, we witness the ‘stark outcomes [when identity] turns the merely different into the absolutely other’ [Young 1990, in Allen 1998, 58].

As noted earlier, the most atrocious and least acknowledged experience of refugee women is the prevalence of sexual violence against them. Ongoing rape and sexual torture is the common experience of refugee women in camps all over the world (Africa Watch 1993; Friedman 1992; Human Rights Watch 2000; Hyndman 2000; McGinn 2000; Ward 2002).

We have recognised that refugee women have national, ethnic, religious, racial and, in the case of women in Kakuma, tribal identities in addition to their identities as women. In times of war or conflict these group identities are sharply delineated through violence (Fearon & Laitin 2000), which often assumes a gendered nature. The oppression of women is used to define boundaries and assert the dominance of one group of men over other men. Women are the socially constructed ‘holders of virtue’ and men attack other communities by ‘dishonouring’ their women (Guy 1992, in Allen 1999; Friedman 1992; Seifert 1999). When men rape and sexually torture women from other groups, they are not only targeting the women’s identity as members of the other group but also their identity as women. This discrimination cannot be separated out into its two constitutive parts: it is the compound effect of a woman’s identity in a particular group and her identity as a woman that results in women’s prevalent experience of rape, systematic rape, sexual torture and forced pregnancy in situations of armed conflict.

In exploring the concept of intersecting identities, is important to emphasise here the weight of the oppression against women, which exposes refugee women to the most extreme consequences of armed conflicts and refugee situations. It is their identity as women which exposes them to attacks on the ‘honour’ of their communities. It is their identity as women which makes them vulnerable to attack by males in times of social instability and family fragmentation, and denies them the means of economic independence. It is their identity as women which makes them dispensable objects in the male struggle for power, which has systematically subordinated women worldwide by the very means of imposing a gendered identity onto them. It is the intersection of refugee women’s socially subordinate status as women compounded by the discrimination against their other marginalised identities that results in the deplorable atrocities committed against them.

An analysis of identities and the intersectional oppressions against them helps to explain some of the sexual violence and other atrocities experienced by women at Kakuma. It helps to explain the high incidence of rape, sexual torture, sexual mutilation and murder of refugee women by the local Tukarna men, who are extremely hostile to the presence of the refugees on their own tribal land. The Tukarna, an extremely impoverished and socially marginalised nomadic tribe, resent the intrusion of the refugees and the burden this place on the very meagre local resources of water, firewood and employment opportunities as well as the perceived support they receive from UNHCR and NGOs (Crisp 2000). They target the refugee women for vicious sexual attacks as a way of defining and defending their own identities.

It also increases our understanding of the rape and sexual violence inflicted upon refugee women by fellow refugees. Refugee camps are sites of social disintegration, at times verging on social chaos. Community and family ties are shattered, tribal or village social structures are broken down and families from opposite sides of the initial conflict often find themselves living together in the same camps. Refugees in camps are usually suffering severe trauma from persecution, flight from home and loss of family members, which is heightened by the almost total lack of infrastructure and social structure in the camps (Crisp 2000; Gorman 2001; Hyndman 2000). The social disintegration, combined with the severe personal trauma experienced by refugees, the extreme threats they perceive to their own identities, and the socially constructed vulnerability of women, create the conditions for, but do not fully explain the high incidence of, rape and sexual and domestic violence against refugee women — even by men from their own communities (Africa Watch 1993; Human Rights Watch 2000; McGinn 2000; Ward 2002).

Equally it must be acknowledged that men also have multiple identities and experience intersectional forms of oppression. Research has shown that refugee experiences place enormous stress on masculine identities and that a common way for men to respond to threats to their male identities is through sexual and gender based violence (Dobash & Dobash 1998; Easteal 1996; Friedman 1992; Nikolic-Ristanovic 1989; Peavey & Zarkovic 1996; Turner 1999; Umberson et al 2003). However, not all violence against women perpetrated by refugee men can be explained by their assumption of the identity label of ‘refugee men’. This will be explored further in the research project on which this paper is based.

A pertinent example of how imposed gender identities lead to systematic oppression and violence against women is the widespread abandonment and domestic violence experienced by refugee women who are the victims of rape. Women are raped in situations of armed conflict or ethnic tension because, as one of their identities, they are the holders of cultural or communal ‘honour’. For the same reason, they are frequently rejected by their communities and families once they have been raped, because of the stigma of shame and blame attached to the ‘dishonouring’. This leaves them vulnerable to further rape or sexual exploitation and to domestic violence by the men in their families. Women who have been raped by rival groups and who bear children by these men are rejected by their own husbands as a part of the process of asserting the threatened boundaries of masculine identity, in an attempt by refugee men to reinstate some of their former power and control (KWO 2004). Aid workers in Iraq have documented cases of young Iraqi women who have been raped by coalition forces then murdered in the name of ‘honour killings’ by their families (Kumar 2004).

Individual acts of extreme violence against refugee women as well as hostile cultural practices can be seen as reflective attempts at self-preservation in situations of extreme instability and social fragmentation, when the individual perceives that their own personhood is at stake. Socially constructed gender identities facilitate the manifestation of identity crises in the form of sexual and gender based violence against women. An analysis of identity can help to account for the perpetrators’ ability to dissociate from refugee women to the extent required for acts of such incredible atrocity and inhumanity.

‘Refugee woman’: a dangerous label

While the analysis of the intersectional oppressions against gender, race, ethnicity and religion is helpful in explaining some of the sexual violence experienced by refugee women in camps like Kakuma, it cannot account for other numerous incidences in which the perpetrators have seemingly little self-interest in asserting their identity. In these cases, when women at Kakuma are raped and sexually exploited by members of the security forces, camp officials, UN peacekeepers and even NGO workers, the men seem at first glance to be merely taking advantage of the women’s situation of extreme vulnerability.

Why is a refugee woman so much more vulnerable than a refugee man, or another woman? The simple answer is: because she is wearing the label of ‘refugee woman’. The answer lies in the label, with which she is consistently branded. This imposed identity defines refugee women as an extremely vulnerable and exploitable group: while the term ‘woman’ denotes a person of low socio-cultural status, the term ‘refugee’ conveys their corresponding lack of legal-political status. The intersection and compounding effect of these dual identities as both women and refugees can explain their extreme vulnerability to gender based and sexual violence by actors who are confident of legal impunity and social acceptance.

Lack of adequate legal and political protection in refugee camps

Although the IRPR is designed, in part, to protect refugees from the legal-political vulnerability of their position, it is often unable to do so for two main reasons. As stated above, it carries no legal obligation or serious threat of legal consequence to either states or individuals. It therefore lacks the authority to enforce its own provisions, leaving this to the political will of nation states. Under the IRPR, obligations to provide legal redress to victims of criminal activity lie with the jurisdiction of the host country. In some cases these countries themselves have weak legal systems which do not uphold the human rights of women, and do not regard rape or domestic violence as criminal acts. In many developing countries, there are insufficient legal resources to adequately service the host populations, and refugee populations are poorly served, if at all.

In some refugee situations, justice is delegated to ‘bench courts’, which are local justice systems run by the refugees themselves and based on traditional custom in the country of origin. While conventional wisdom would suggest that these are a fair and just idea which respects the culture and norms of the refugee ethnic groupings, research into their effectiveness is proving otherwise (Gainsbury 2003). There is evidence of male refugees using the system to create power bases within the camps and to dispense justice which has little to do with systems formally practiced in the country of origin. There is also evidence that many of these bench courts are run on strictly patriarchal lines and that women are not likely to achieve justice from using these legal systems. In fact there is evidence that women are often punished by the powerful males in some communities for taking complaints to bench courts.

Women at Kakuma are extremely vulnerable because they are ‘refugee women’. As women, their vulnerability is caused by the cultural attitudes and practices that deny women equal power with men in all social contexts. Even in situations of so called social normality, women in patriarchal societies are considered to be in need of ‘protection’. In camps, where the normal social structures and relations have been broken down by conflict and geographic upheaval, and have no possibility of being restored, women are the most frequent casualties of the resulting violence and deprivation.

As refugees, their vulnerability is greatly compounded by their lack of legal-political protection. The subliminal association between ‘refugee’ and ‘non-citizen’ creates almost absolute legal impunity for those who exploit or assault refugees. It is common knowledge among members of the military, camp and border officials, and others who work with refugees that women in particular have virtually no social or legal avenues for recourse if they are mistreated or exploited. Despite the international endorsement of human rights law, it has very little power to police or to prosecute. The legal machinations for the upholding of human rights are still very much the domain of sovereign states, which choose to what extent human rights law is reflected in the rights of their citizens. In the case of refugees, violations of their human rights carry little or no risk of legal consequence (Chalk 1998).

Lack of citizenship

When refugees are forced to flee their countries, although their citizenship remains officially intact, all of the factors which give it personal meaning is undermined (Pettman 1999; Bar On 1994). Civil rights and civil status cannot be upheld when a person is unable to live in or return to his or her country for safety reasons. Refugees are unable to participate in the citizenship practices of any country and are unable to enjoy the civil rights afforded to citizens and to take part in public affairs. Further, the refugee experience denies internalised notions of belonging and protection which are associated with the idea of being a citizen: refugees are no longer able to identify with the sense of membership, participation and security that are normally provided through citizenship (Isin & Wood 1999).

In addition, the IRPR is currently unable to re-create the social environment that is the prerequisite for the processes of citizenship to emerge (Crisp 2000). The protection afforded by citizenship results from an active process of civil and political participation and membership in a community. It requires the political power and agency of the individual. Refugee camps are sites of social disintegration, lacking the resources, infrastructure, social cohesion and legal authority necessary to build a political community (Hyndman 2000). Refugees are therefore denied the protection offered by political empowerment.

In camp situations, refugees experience the ongoing denial of their citizenship. Although the host country may honour minimum international obligations, it has no such obligation to provide refugees with citizenship status (Chalk 1998). Refugees in camps are stateless, not belonging to the community and denied political participation and the protection it affords. To be identified as a refugee is to be, by definition, a non-citizen. Refugees in camps therefore live in a situation of extreme legal-political vulnerability, lacking state and legal protection as well as political power and agency. The very identity label ‘refugee’ confers powerlessness upon an individual. When this is compounded by the effects of being identified as a ‘woman’, the resulting label — which is paradoxically employed in an attempt to provide protection to refugees under the IRPR — becomes a dangerous tool for the intersectional oppression of refugee women, increasing their vulnerability and exposing them to extreme risks of sexual violence.

Lack of resources, lack of will and intent!

In the case of refugee women, the IRPR is even less well equipped to provide adequate protection. A major problem is the lack of implementation of the excellent guidelines developed by UNHCR to address the issues of sexual violence against women, despite obvious good intent and commitment from the High Commissioner. This can be attributed partly to the lack of resources. The UNHCR suffers from continual funding problems and the High Commissioner frequently raises the questions of more equitable burden sharing between the developed and the developing world in annual executive committee meetings in Geneva (ARRA 2003). Developing countries lack resources to host refugees, and international aid agencies suffer from funding crisis and increasing demands, plus the phenomena referred to a ‘donor fatigue’ which often means that only the most urgent demands for food, clean water and basic medical services can be provided. An example of this is the re-routing to Afghanistan of grain and oil destined to camps in Africa during the height of the Afghan war. This led to severe food shortages and inadequate levels of nutrition in some African refugee camps. Aid workers refer to this as ‘CNN driven food distribution’.

While these rather straightforward explanations are undoubtedly valid, there are also more pervasive and insidious reasons for the lack of implementation. They are those of attitude and the lack of motivation by some service providers to respond to the issues of sexual and gender based violence. The notions encapsulated in statements such as ‘rape is the common experience of women everywhere’ (Pittaway 1991), used to excuse the lack of response to the widespread occurrence of rape of refugee women in one camp, and ‘but they [refugee women] are used to rape’ (Pittaway and Bartolomei 2003), underlies an unwillingness by many service providers to address the issue. It leads to situations where children and young women who have been raped are kept in protective custody without schooling or specialist support for months at a time while solutions to their problems are considered. It underlies statements such as ‘but if all the women in the camp have been raped, do you want to resettle them all?’ (senior service provider, in Pittaway & Bartolomei 2003). Until service providers and refugee officials treat rape and sexual abuse of refugee women as a serious human rights violation and a failure of the IRPR, it is unlikely that there will be major changes.


Refugee women are thus disempowered by the very label that is used to invoke their protection by the IRPR, because the label ‘refugee woman’ becomes a marker of their exploitability and denies them the expression of other identities. Refugee women are raped, sexually exploited and sexually tortured because of their identities as women and refugees and members of marginalised social groups. This creates a discourse of vulnerability that is frequently, if subconsciously, invoked by those who work with refugees, including UNHCR officials and NGO workers. It becomes the determining factor in the treatment they receive from many men including security forces, camp officials and fellow refugees. The discourse of the ‘vulnerable’ refugee woman carries with it the presumption that rape is prolific and unavoidable — and therefore not as serious as other bodily assault and torture (Cohen 2000). This reinforces and is reinforced by the more general social tolerance of sexual and gender based violence which exists strongly within the camps, often causing those mandated to the implement of IRPR to become blind to the prevalence and gravity of rape and sexual torture against refugee women, and to their protection needs.

Almost absolute legal impunity, combined with a social attitude of tolerance or at best indifference to sexual violence against refugee women, creates conditions of pervasive indiscriminate and systemic sexual violence committed against refugee women. The IRPR intends to provide legal protection to refugees, but fails to do so for most refugee women because it fails to challenge the discourse surrounding the label of ‘refugee woman’ and therefore disempowers those it seeks to protect. l

* Director and Research Associate, Centre for Refugee Research, University of NSW.

1 The international refugee protection regime is based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. The responsibility for refugees within the UN system lies with the UNHCR. State parties which have ratified the refugee convention are obliged to protect refugees within their territory according to its terms. Member states, specialised agencies such as the World Food Program, the World Health Organisation, international organisations such as the Red Cross and many international and local aid agencies work together to assist in the provision of protection to refugees who seek asylum in countries outside of their homeland.


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