A few days ago, we celebrated International Women's Day. Only one day a year when we remember the fight for women's rights, the long and uninterrupted fight of women around the world for an equal position in the family, society, at work, in educational institutions, on the street. This day is very important for the realization of basic human rights, especially the right to work and dignified working conditions, the exercise of electoral rights and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
All powerful people, government officials, presidents, philanthropists have fulfilled their duty and sent strong messages of support to women, pointing out their role in society. To be strong, brave, to fight for our rights. That we need to be educated, to be eloquent, ambitious, etc… How nice it sounds. Democratic. But is that really so?
What about those women who are fighting for minimum existential rights, such as the right to housing, food, clothing and footwear, the right to health care? Not to mention rights such as the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of slavery, the prohibition of discrimination.
Perhaps the more realistic question is whether they have the right to fight and what mechanisms of fight are available to them, given the handful of laws, regulations and conventions that are just a dead letter on paper?
Who are they? What are their rights? What are their needs for a life worthy of a man and why are they on the margins?
We can say that the year 2020 was very difficult and ruthless for the whole world, and it brought more problems to migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and other countries – from spreading fake news on social networks, media harassment, border violence, intimidation and persecution, social exclusion to the marginalization of the most vulnerable categories.
Particularly vulnerable groups in the migrant population are women, who are often abused by dealers and smugglers. Due to insecurity, the unfavorable political situation in the country and poverty, thousands of them have fled their homes in search of asylum. Exposed to various problems such as worries about the continuation of the journey, pressure to preserve their families, even violence, they are increasingly experiencing a drop in mood, lethargy, stress, which contributes to increased depressive symptoms and trauma. Just some of the risks they face in their path to a better life and security are the danger of human trafficking, sexual harassment, exploitation, violence, harassment while traveling, which are greatly facilitated by legal invisibility – lack of identification documents and inability to exercise rights, language barriers and ignorance of the culture of the countries they pass through.
Women and girls face additional vulnerabilities when displaced by conflict. An inadequate and dysfunctional protection system allows perpetrators to abuse with impunity. Lack of shelters, overcrowding in camps with extremely difficult living conditions, poorly lit, unlockable public toilets, common areas without a private sphere increase the risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. Where people are forced to live together in a small space, without employment and frustrated, violence grows that often manifests itself in the weaker. And they often remain silent for fear of stigmatization and punishment from their own families, shame, helplessness, and moral condemnation in their own environment.
And even when abuses occur, many migrant women and girls lack the resources, support systems, and knowledge to seek help, as well as language barriers that further facilitate attacks. Behind the attack may be a violent partner, roommate, smuggler and volunteer who imposes and abuses them.Migrant women also face double discrimination – as women and as migrants. Racism and xenophobia appear as direct consequences of large migrations. Xenophobia against non-compatriots, especially towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, is one of the main sources of modern racism. And antiimmigrant sentiment is constantly on the rise in many countries.
Negative views of migrants and refugees have become a practice in the media, creating prejudices and stereotypes about them that lead to social exclusion. With biased reporting and sensationalist headlines that mostly have nothing to do with the real situation on the ground, the B&H public is poisoned by a lot of false news and misinformation about refugees and migrants. But of course this is not surprising because we are a nation in which the media builds the opinion and attitude of public opinion. Headlines such as “Refugees and migrants are exclusively men” further aggravate their situation by leaving them invisible and contributing to their further marginalization. It is true that most refugees and migrants are men, but the number of women and children is by no means negligible.
Reports of rape and sexual abuse in refugee accommodation, and during travel, have been almost nonexistent in public. Yet the dark figure is large, although there are no official reports. Many cases have never been recorded, nor will anyone be held accountable. According to information in the Sarajevo area, information on attempted rape and rape of migrant women has been confirmed. The victims stated that while traveling from Turkey to B&H, they were exposed to abuse by migrants, but also by the staff of the camps where they were staying. But they are not ready to talk about it publicly, because of secondary victimization, personal beliefs and partly because of distrust in the protection system. It must be taken into account that these are women who lived in patriarchal environments and who are less educated because they did not have the opportunity to go to school. There are also cases of children who engage in sex for the purpose of survival in order to pay smugglers to continue their journey because they have run out of money or have been robbed.
Insufficient media space, lack of information on the social position of migrant women, and even insufficient institutional commitment to this problem lead to women experiencing discrimination not only on the basis of migrant status, but also on the basis of gender. This is supported by the fact that the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina very rarely publish data on the number of migrant women, and almost never on their needs, which further threatens their social position. The situation is no better when it comes to countries in the region such as Croatia and Serbia. The first available online UN reports on the number of migrant women in Bosnia and Herzegovina will appear only in 2019, and special attention to the number of women, their needs, and programs and assistance to women comes into focus from February 2020. In March 2020, according to the UN monthly report on the migrant situation in B&H, it was determined that the number of new migrants was 4,795, of which 451 were women and girls, which represents 18% of the total number of migrants.
Migrant women also face discrimination in the economic sector, on national, racial and gender grounds, in terms of pay, overtime, opportunities for advancement in work, access to the health and education systems, and they are very often exposed to verbal, physical and sexual harassment, abuse in the workplace.
As another in a series of problems that migrant women still face, there are health risks both in transit and in destinations that are additionally affected by climate change and unsafe travel conditions. A significant number of migrant women are pregnant or become pregnant and may lose access to sexual and reproductive health protection during travel or in the chaos of displacement, which can have serious consequences for their health. It is considered one of the leading causes of death, illness and disability among displaced women and girls of childbearing age.
What has been alarming lately is that a large percentage of refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A study by the German Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists shows that 70% of refugees have witnessed violence. More than half of them felt it violence on their skin, and 43% of refugees have survived torture, including a large number of women. Access to psychosocial assistance is becoming one of the important links in easier social inclusion in society, adaptation to the new
environment and mitigation of the consequences of the migration process. This availability in B&H is not at an enviable level because it is provided only in some camps due to limited human resources and language barrier, lack of translators.
Although all these problems go far and have their roots in the past, because women in the process of migration throughout history have been discriminated against in a way that they were invisible and unrecognized as participants in migration, even though they made up half of the total number of migrants. Until recently, they were not recognized or protected by conventions, including the Law on Movement and Residence of Aliens and Asylum in B&H. The UN conventions and B&H laws mention the term “migrants and their families” where men are generally understood as migrants and their wives and children, from which it can be concluded that women in theory had only a passive position in the migration process. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees also prefers men as refugees when defining the term “refugee”. Given that this notion is not gender sensitive, it can be concluded that the need to protect migrant women was not recognized during the drafting of this convention. This is supported by the fact that the part of the Law on Refugees that refers to nondiscrimination does not state that discrimination on the grounds of sex is prohibited.
From all the above we can conclude that women throughout history have been both de iure and de facto discriminated against as participants in migration, which has had a negative impact on their social position in society, legal protection, access to the labor market, education and health system. Although women currently make up about half of the world's migrant population, as do half of the world's population, this practice continues today. The number of women being affected by violence is immense and growing everyday. According to a WHO report, 1 in 3 women globally experience violence and discrimination. This is not a feminist fight, a fight of women for their rights. This is a fight of all of us because every human being on the planet deserves and has the right to a dignified life. That is our moral obligation. They need us, our support and compassion. Because tommorow it could be you!
What is a paradox is that all three constituent people in B&H experienced temporary or permanent displacement from their place to other parts of B&H or abroad during the last war, so it would be reasonably expected that the B&H population shows compassion and empathy for the plight of migrants. Experience on your own skin should allow for easier identification. But the reality is different, because unfortunately more than 20 years after the war, B&H is still a post-war society. How do we accept others when we cannot accept ourselves?
The migrant crisis has shaken Europe and its values to the core. The European Union revealed all its weaknesses when there was a sudden influx of migrants. The ideas of European humanity, solidarity and openness have been called into question. Has the EU remained stuck between human security and state security?
Author: Natalia Vuković