World Refugee Day: A Step in the Right Direction

June 27, 2019

World Refugee Day is held on 20 June each year, honoring the courage and determination of those have been forced to flee from their homes. This year’s campaign is #StepWithRefugees, challenging global citizens to stand in solidarity with the colossus of refugees that “trek 1 billion miles to reach the nearest point of safety”. Women are among one of the most vulnerable populations to violence, specifically sexual violence. When observing the plight of the refugee woman’s experience, it is essential the recognize the difficulties and trauma these brave women face before, during and after their journey.


The latest political crises and wars have led to an upsurge in refugee movements and those seeking protection. Of the 25.4 million refugees in the world, approximately 50% are women. Within refugee camps, women are more likely to experience sexual gender based violence (SGBV) than men. A survey conducted among 223 women described 332 cases consisting of 389 sexual gender based violence. More than half of the reported victims were women under 30 years old, while their aggressor was a man older than 30. Coupling unreported SGBV crimes with  quixotic health services, economic insecurity, poor mental health, and cultural barriers only perpetuates the cycle of violence women suffer.

As a result, countries resettling refugees urgently need to address the specific mental, physical, and reproductive needs of women.  It is imperative to understand potential gender inequities within cultures to accurately assist refugees, no matter their country of origin. For example, research in Turkey has provided evidence that a better understanding of the sexual and reproductive health needs of refugee women is required to improve provided health services. In a community-based survey on Syrian refugee women’s health, Turkish researchers examined 458 women between the ages of 15 and 49. Of these participants, 51.3% of women were married before the age of 18. “Approximately 16% of women were pregnant, and 26.7% of them had not received prenatal care; 47.7% had had a pregnancy loss; and 50.8 % reported symptoms of STIs. Of those who were sexually active, 37.8% were not using contraception.” These statistics demonstrate the dire need for women-focused health interventions for the women courageously seeking safety.

Some authors have driven the further development of intervention programs and support systems to protect refugees, specifically women and children. A 2018 RTI affiliated research investigated the prevalence of mental disorders among young refugees. In 2016, 398,000 asylum seekers submitted applications for entrance into the European Union. One out of every 3 refugees experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, or have any other emotional or behavioral problems. Researchers are concluding that facilitating an easier access to mental and physical health services is crucial to aiding refugees.

The limited amount of literature on women’s experiences seeking asylum and their support programs disregards the concomitant problem of gender violence and cripples it. Host countries and affiliates must create specialized programs that “highlight the special attention that should be given to the mental health problems of refugees” upon arrival. By helping these individuals safely integrate into their new environment means reinforcing the importance of mental and public health services, addressing violence within camps, and promoting public dialogue on cultural competency. Until then, we must still commemorate the millions of women that take the leap of courage to leave their homes. We promise to fight for their future and a world that welcomes them.