Women and girls in forced and protracted displacement


What are the specific vulnerabilities women and girls face, and/or specific opportunities open to them, in forced and protracted displacement?


There is general consensus in this grey and academic literature on the vulnerabilities faced by women and girls in forced and protracted displacement, although less is known about the opportunities they may have and the long-term impacts. Much of the recent evidence available focuses on displaced populations in Europe and countries neighbouring Syria. There is more of a focus on refugees than internally displaced persons, although forcible displacement appears to result in similar vulnerabilities for both populations.

Key findings of the review reveal women and girls face specific vulnerabilities during flight as a result of forced displacement, some of which include:

  • Increased risk of sexual and gender based violence: women and girls fleeing various different countries have been subject to sexual abuse, rape, transactional sex, and human trafficking by armed forces, officials, smugglers, others fleeing, and individuals in countries along the route. Women and girls travelling alone are particularly vulnerable.
  • Difficulties in providing support to populations in transit: efforts to provide essential services to women and girls in transit are complicated by language barriers and cultural factors, as well as lack of time and privacy to build trust with women, combined with limited numbers of trained personnel, and the rapid movement of populations. Lack of clear information hampers women and girls from accessing services and leaves them vulnerable to smugglers and other opportunists.
  • Lack of gender sensitive services: response plans have not specifically considered gender which has resulted in a lack of private and secure family-only and women-only accommodation, common areas and separate WASH facilities for women and men in reception centres. This increases the risk of sexual and gender based violence.
  • Pregnancy: displacement puts pregnant women at higher risk of complications, preterm delivery and even death; while access to contraception can be difficult for women in emergencies.

Further, upon arrival in host country and during their protracted displacement women and girls face some similar and different vulnerabilities, some of which include:

  • Increased risk of sexual and gender based violence: in some host countries women and girls face daily sexual exploitation and harassment, which is often linked to economic vulnerability, the breakdown of traditional protection networks, the unsuitable conditions they live in, and objections to changing gender roles. Some of the violence has been perpetrated by humanitarian actors who are supposed to be assisting these vulnerable populations.
  • Increase in child marriage: displaced girls are often married off by families worried about their safety or for financial reasons, increasing their risk of exploitation and abuse and school dropout.
  • Increased risk of being trafficked: desperation and the need to seek out alternative means of protection and economic survival can push female refugees into the hands of traffickers. Many end up in several types of abusive situations, including prostitution, domestic slavery, child begging in urban areas, or working in dangerous labour conditions in textile factories and farms.
  • Increased trauma and isolation: many displaced women and girls are traumatised by their experiences, and the insecure situations many live in create added stress. Syrian refugee women and girls are often extremely isolated.
  • Restricted access to livelihoods: many displaced women struggle to establish livelihoods, and a harmful coping strategy may be ‘survival sex’. The insecure work environment increases the risk of sexual harassment for those displaced women who do work.
  • Lack of gender sensitive humanitarian assistance: the layout of camps for displaced persons may increase risks for women and girls. Inadequate assistance may result in women prioritising the needs of their husbands and children to the detriment of their own health and well-being. Non-food items may not meet the specific needs of women and girls and they may engage in transactional sex in order to raise the money needed to buy the appropriate items.
  • Inadequate support for menstrual hygiene management: without the provision of culturally appropriate sanitary items, women and girls may avoid attending school or engaging in livelihood activities.

Some groups of forcibly displaced women are particularly vulnerable, including displaced adolescent girls; elderly women; disabled women and girls; female household heads; unaccompanied minors; sexual minorities; urban refugee women and girls; and internally displaced women and girls.



Suggested citation

Rohwerder, B. (2016). Women and girls in forced and protracted displacement (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1364). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.