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All women deserve refuge from sexual violence

Olivia Darby, Policy Director, The Wonder Foundation.

The press has been awash lately with tales of - and reaction to - sexual violence supposedly perpetrated by male migrants against women in Cologne, Germany, and elsewhere. These are horrible crimes and should be punished. It is easy to understand why people are upset. They have opened their borders to offer protection and opportunity to migrants and refugees and then found themselves under attack and at risk.

The press has been awash lately with tales of - and reaction to - sexual violence supposedly perpetrated by male migrants against women in Cologne, Germany, and elsewhere. These are horrible crimes and should be punished. It is easy to understand why people are upset. They have opened their borders to offer protection and opportunity to migrants and refugees and then found themselves under attack and at risk. 

The sad part is the perpetrators have turned public opinion against refugees as a group thanks to the actions of a minority. Before we close borders we need to remember that the most common victims of sexual violence at the hands of male refugees and migrants are female refugees and migrants.

Within the area controlled by ISIL across Syria and Iraq, rape has been used as a weapon of war against minorities, for example Christians and Yazidis, with young women being kept as ‘sex slaves’.

Many refugees are fleeing from conflicts where rape is used as a weapon. The conflict in Eastern Congo has been characterised by rape against females, from babies to grandmothers. This has been known for years, but little has been done by the international community to end the war and to protect women and girls. 

It is no surprise that those who are able to do so seek to escape these situations, many leaving homes and livelihoods behind only to end up living in refugee camps. From Jordan to Darfur, they are rarely a true place of refuge for women and girls and sexual violence is common. Many are scared to go to the bathroom at night in case they are attacked – others are attacked in broad daylight. Rape is a physical manifestation of a worldview where some lives are ‘more human’ and ‘more valuable’ than others. Rape and sexual violence of any kind is wrong. As investigations into the Cologne attacks continue, we cannot let fear and uncertainty push us towards this worldview. All women deserve to be safe. 

We cannot allow the actions of a few to justify turning away refugee women and girls at our borders. Additionally, the services offered to refugees in the UK should reflect the fact that many have run a gauntlet of unimaginable horror in their search for safety. This is why the work of our partner, the Baytree Centre in Lambeth, is so important. It offers a safe, friendly, women-only space for learners. They teach English to women so that they can regain their independence, which is of vital importance if they are to rebuild their lives.

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