Geopolitics

Let Them Lead: The Power And Insight Of Refugee Women

It's time to recognize refugee women for what they are: intrepid organizers and providers, argues Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee.

Rohingya displaced muslims.
Rohingya displaced muslims.
Leymah Gbowee

-OpEd-

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP — The Rohingya exodus is one of the most critical refugee crises of our times, and in recent weeks, as the world marked the first anniversary of the start of the tragic events, images of the exodus abounded. Many of those pictures featured helpless refugee women.

The hardships refugee women endure is indeed heart-wrenching. And yet, portraying them just as passive victims is misleading. Too often, in an effort to raise funds or move the public into action, we paint such women as powerless, helplessly waiting to be rescued from the peril of their fate, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Refugee women are strong and courageous leaders, often the first ones to respond to the needs of their community.

Earlier this year, my fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Although they witnessed unparalleled levels of devastation, they were struck by the resolve and strength of Rohingya women. The women were supporting relief efforts and offering translation services, as well as organizing and responding to their community's needs to the best of their ability.

The first bed we had was made of grass.

Around the same time I visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan with other Nobel laureates, and memories came flooding back of my own experience as a teenager, living in a refugee camp in Ghana. The scenes were immensely familiar: homes insufficiently built to protect families from the sweltering sun; infrastructure focused solely on keeping people alive but not providing any space to truly live and thrive.

My own mother is an example of the same strength and determination that Rohingya women display today. Before fleeing Liberia with my siblings and me, my mother was a dispensing pharmacist. She was not allowed to practice her profession in Ghana, so she resolved to sell vegetables to support the 10 people relying on her. The camp didn't provide mattresses, blankets or any source of income, so the first bed we had was made of grass that my mother cut, dried and wove.

Despite these enormous challenges, she always took time to volunteer in our new community. Her example is a constant reminder to me that the best thing we can do for refugee communities is to provide them — especially women and girls­­ — with opportunities to create the change they need.

I see so much strength, wisdom and resilience in the women in refugee camps. But one year into the Rohingya crisis we rarely hear the voices of Rohingya women included at the decision-making table. It is time for these women to actively determine their future, leading the way for their communities in the process, and for decision-makers to act on their advice.

Tawakkul Karman, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf display their awards during the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 2011. — Photo: Harry Wad

When we let ourselves be led by refugee women and girls, we will create real change in the lives of refugees. For too long women and girls have been excluded from systems of representation and participation. Women are interviewed by media and humanitarian organizations, but rarely does their own understanding of the needs and strengths of their communities have a profound impact on how refugee camps are run and organized.

In Zaatari, I met a group of children playing outside. Only one spoke English: a little girl who dreamed of becoming a UN interpreter. As she shared her story, I wanted to tell her of the opportunities that exist for her beyond her camp. I know, firsthand, the anger that bubbles up inside when you are forced to leave your home, but I want girls growing up in refugee camps to know those feelings can be channeled into creating positive change for their community. There is always hope; there is always tomorrow.

We can create tangible change in refugee communities by leaning into the wisdom and insight of refugee women and girls. It is the key to responding to the Rohingya crisis. And it's the best way to ensure that the little girl I met in Zaatari fulfills her dream of being a translator.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.


Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?


The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ