Food For Thought

Vulnerable Refugee to Confident Girl through Protection and Education

In the midst of migrants in search of a better life there are people in need of protection: refugees and asylum-seekers, women and children victims of trafficking...Many move simply to avoid dying of hunger. When leaving is not an option but a necessity, this is more than poverty.

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees


A refugee is person who is forced to flee from home to escape war, persecution, or a natural disaster.  By definition, a refugee is someone who seeks refuge.  Yet for women and girls, refuge may be an elusive goal.  Their refugee status makes them especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation in all its forms.


In conflict situations, men may be involved in the fighting, have been killed, have stayed behind to protect the family property, or be on the run themselves.  Women are frequently encumbered by caring for children, and along with girls, specifically targeted and subjected to physical and sexual violence from both sides of the conflict.   Examples are many, including Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, East Timor, Bosnia, and Croatia, to name just a few.  Sexual violence is a frequent feature of internal conflict as well, such as the recent political battles in Kenya and the current uprising in Syria.


The intent is not only to take advantage of sexual vulnerability or exploit girls for monetary gain through sex trafficking and other forms of slavery, but to tear the fabric of society and punish the enemy—particularly in cultures where sexual purity is a source of family honor.  Girls are especially vulnerable, and none more so than unaccompanied girls—girls who have been separated in the confusion from adult family members.


Our Dining for Women recipient this month is Heshima Kenya, dedicated to finding, sheltering (if necessary), and educating unaccompanied refugee girls in Nairobi.  The girls come from several nearby countries including Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.  Heshima Kenya also provides skills training in textiles, and education in personal health, HIV-AIDS, and avoiding exploitation.

(To learn more about Heshima Kenya, see the Program Fact Sheet for January 2013.)


UN Millennium Development Goals



Goal 2:  Achieve universal primary education

Target:  Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.


According to The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, more than half of all out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa.  No statistics are available specifically for refugees.  There are some schools in refugee camps, such as Dadaab in northern Kenya.  In Dadaab, over half of the total population of 463,000 mainly Somali refugees are under 18.  About 38% of them attend school.  A third of girls between the ages of 5 and 13 go to school.  For ages 14 to 17, only one in 20 is enrolled.  Outside the camps, refugees are widely dispersed and impossible to track, but it is safe to say that few refugee girls are in school.



Goal 3:  Gender Equality

Target:  Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.


Statistics are not available on the education of refugee children, so it is difficult to state with accuracy how the education of refugee girls in Kenya ranks.   Suffice it to say, few refugee children of either gender have access to education.  The Heshima Kenya program will improve the lives of many refugee girls.  Without education, girls remain vulnerable.


(For information on the value of girls’ education to the greater society, see “The Arguments for Investing in Girls”, Food for Thought, December 2012, pp3-5.)

The Challenges for Refugee Girls


According to The Women’s Refugee Commission, “More than 140 million girls live in fragile states affected by armed conflict.  Of the 42 million people who have had to flee their homes because of war, 80 percent are women, children and young people. At least 10 million are estimated to be girls and young women.”  These statistics relate only to armed conflict.  There are other refugees from famine and natural disaster, such as the inhabitants of tent cities in Haiti.


Girls are the most vulnerable of the refugees, and subject to physical and sexual attack while fleeing from strife or disaster.  Even in the presumed safety of refugee camps, girls sent to gather firewood are vulnerable to attack.  And the camps themselves are not safe, with little or no electricity, no private or secure latrines, and flimsy shelters.   Rape is common in camps in post-earthquake Haiti, and rising violence against women and girls has been reported at Dadaab .  Young girls are the easiest targets of rape, leaving them vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, and the dangers of childbirth and obstetric fistula.


Forms of Violence Against Refugee Girls


  • Child Soldiers:  Many thousands of girls have been pressed into service as soldiers, both in rebel and national armies.  They are armed, trained, and taught to kill.  But because of their gender, in addition to soldiering, they are often appropriated as “bush wives” or given to various men for sexual services as a reward.  Many become pregnant, of course, with all the attendant dangers of maternal mortality and obstetric fistula.


  • Child Marriage:  In conflict zones and refugee camps, parents are often forced to marry their girls at very young ages.  This decision can be driven by a number of factors, such as arranging for the girl to marry before she loses her virginity and thereby commands a lower price or becomes unmarriageable, or simply the need to reduce the number of mouths to feed.


  • Transactional Sex:  Unaccompanied girls may need to trade their bodies for food and the basic means of survival.  Within refugee camps, girls may trade sex for food and necessities for themselves and their families with humanitarian workers and peacekeepers.  Although sex is not the result of assault, it can hardly be viewed as voluntary. Although girls are not forced by men into these encounters, they are forced by circumstances.  Of course transactional sex poses the same risks as rape—pregnancy, fistula, unsafe abortions, and/or HIV/AIDS.


  • Parents Prostituting Daughters:   A parent may prostitute a daughter for money to feed the family.   At present, refugees from Syria are selling daughters to wealthy men from the Gulf states for pre-Islamic “pleasure marriages”, an ancient practice originally designed to give widows a way to make a living.  Such “marriages” may last less than 30 minutes.  According to the Gatestone Institute, “Muslim preachers in a number of Arab countries have been encouraging their followers to engage in ‘pleasure marriages’ with Syrian girls as a way of ridding them and their families of their misery.  Some of these preachers have even issued fatwas [Islamic decrees] permitting the sexual exploitation of minors.”  The Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustour revealed that Jordanian men were targeting 14 and 15 year old girls.


  • Sex Trafficking:  Sex traffickers flock to areas of conflict, because there are so many girls easy to exploit or kidnap.  The girls are also vulnerable to promises of legitimate jobs, only to find themselves forced into the sex trade.   (For more information on sex trafficking, see Food for Thought, July 2012, pp2-5.)


  • Honor Killings:  In some cultures, if a girl loses her virginity—even through rape—she has dishonored her family and must be killed.  According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, honor killings increase dramatically during conflict situations.  A girl’s virginity makes her valuable to the family.  Families may be eager to marry daughters early “sometimes as a means of protecting them from random sexual violence, often so that there is one less mouth to feed and, possibly, to accrue some financial gains from the marriage.”  Once she has lost her virtue, she has lost her value.  If she is not killed outright to restore family honor, any assault will not be reported and injuries will not be attended to.  To make it known that she had been raped would be to reveal the dishonor of the family.  And of course, no charges are ever brought against perpetrators.


  • Female Genital Mutilation:  In some regions FGM is a primary method for ensuring a girl’s virginity.  It may be performed as soon as possible in conflict zones to conform to the culture and ensure that the girl is a desirable marriage prospect.


  • Manual Labor:  Girls (and boys) can easily be exploited to do menial or hard labor for long hours with little pay.



Returning Home


Some, but not all, refugees may return to their home or village at some point.  Many never do.  Thousands of people spend years in refugee camps.  For refugee girls, returning home brings a new set of challenges as profound as those in their lives as refugees.  At the most basic level, if the male head of the household has died or cannot be located, wives and daughters will have no home to return to.  Property rights for women are a rarity, and even if such rights exist, the father’s male relatives usually ignore those rights, and seize the land.  Wives and daughters may be turned out of their previous home and left to fend for themselves—refugees once again.  In some cultures, the mother may be “inherited” by her brother-in-law regardless of her wishes, and the girl’s future is in the hands of the male relative.


But many refugee girls have another challenge in returning.  In most developing countries, the value of a girl, and the honor of her family, depends on her virginity.   The likelihood of her having been raped, forced to prostitute herself (or having been prostituted by family or others) or having to engage in transactional sex is quite high.  She may well have had a child.  Even though she is the victim, she is rejected by her culture, and virtually unmarriageable.  At the end of conflict, returning to her family home or district, she may find herself an outcast through no fault of her own.


In some cases, a girl may have discovered as a refugee a level of autonomy that is not available to her in her home village.  Even if her village were to take her back, she may chafe at the tight restrictions of a traditional culture.


In Conclusion

Refugee girls are some of the most vulnerable people in the world.   In extreme and chaotic situations such as war, famine, and natural disaster, girls and women will always be at higher risk than men and boys.  But for girls especially, once they have escaped the danger zone, they need help in finding safe shelter and a place where they can begin to build new lives.  This means not only safety from predators and abuse, but education and skills training.   In order for her to make a life for herself and escape a life of marginalization, a refugee girl must be educated and empowered to support herself and make her own way in the world.


Heshima Kenya is empowering refugee girls to build a bright future—a future of their own making.

Our special thanks to Donna Shaver, Author, DFW “Food for Thought” January 2013