Remembering Women Refugees in Women’s History Month

By Syed M. Hassan and Bill Swersey

As we begin to conclude celebrating Women’s History Month, we can’t help but think of the major developments in recent years that have provided them a greater voice on crucial issues of the day, particularly in the United States.

Thanks to the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, men in high-ranking positions in various professional fields have been brought down for their past, or even recent, acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault against women. In 43 percent of the cases, the abrupt (if not long-overdue) vacancies were filled by women, another sign of progress.

Unfortunately, there is another group of women still waiting to be heard by the world community; women refugees. Women and girls make up 50 percent of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population.

The international humanitarian community should focus on programs that will help forge a path forward, providing both economic and social benefits. Last year, Rachel Vogelstein of the Council on Foreign Relations said with more women working, the nation’s gross domestic product goes up and poverty goes down.

The support and investment in educating refugees in general has been spotty, as international aid organizations receive only a fraction of was requested. A 2015 report by the Malala Fund found that refugee education projects received less than 1 percent of all global education aid in 2014.

Refugee girls want to improve the world. Will we let them do so?

For refugee women, the best place to start is by providing programs that instill practical and marketable skills in the working world. Many nonprofit organizations, including faith-based ones like Islamic Relief USA and HIAS, recognize the need for such programs and the benefits. In Chad, HIAS facilitated a training program where women learned how to bake bread. The program consisted of 214 women who had experienced some life-altering setback, such as divorce, widowhood, disabilities, abandonment, or being deprived of education.

In Chechnya, Islamic Relief set up a vocational program that enabled students to acquire skills in tailoring they otherwise wouldn’t have accessed due to the prohibitively high tuition costs made going to college a non-starter. Within a relatively short time, one of the students started her own business.

Such programs are essential for women’s development in their professional skill sets and emotional well-being. A 2015 study in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth found that a vocational program for Syrian refugees at the Zaatari Camp in Jordan “enhanced women’s confidence and self-esteem, improved their occupational business and entrepreneurship skills, helped them generate income to build a better life for their shattered families, and gave them hope and opportunities.”

In addition to learning new skills and increased self-worth, women refugees become exposed to new cultures and attitudes, which can help them pave the way to assimilate in their new surroundings. A 2018 Urban Institute study mentioned that on average, refugee women participate in the labor force at rates as high as native-born women, after the initial years after arrival. It also mentioned that newly arrived refugee women are less likely than native-born women to be in the labor force, but rates for longer-term residents (more than 10 years) rise to nearly meet or exceed that of women who were born in the U.S.

To have maximum impact though, humanitarian organizations cannot do it alone. An interdependent relationship between government, educational institutions, and nonprofits would increase the likelihood of regularly providing such effective and life-changing programs. We just need the will, a good sense of priorities, and the courage to do so.

Our future, and millions of women around the world, are relying on it.

Syed M. Hassan is a media relations specialist at Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit humanitarian and advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, that works in more than 40 nations around the world .

Bill Swersey is the vice president of communication and digital media at HIAS, an international nonprofit Jewish organization focusing on refugee protection.