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Only Rape – The long fight for human rights and gender equality for refugee women

1 November 20230 comments

By Adjunct Professor Eileen Pittaway, AM, Phd, and Dr Linda Bartolomei

In 1990, the horrendous scope of the rape and sexual torture of refugee women and girls was a key finding of research with refugee women resettled in Australia, undertaken by the University of NSW (UNSW) and a small NGO, The Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW). The fight for recognition of this and for justice for refugee women was long and hard. It a story that must be told, to ensure that in the future, refugee women and girls receive the protection and services which are their rights. Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei have written a book about the fight, which describes their journey, along with a huge international network of advocates and refugee women who have fought to make significant gains in this area.   

We were delighted when AMES agreed to launch our book in Melbourne, because AMES are such an important part of the story, in particular, Dr Melika Yassin Sheikh- Eldin Manager of Settlement Partnerships at AMES, who in has worked tirelessly to promote and support women at risk in Australia and is a key part of the Australian advocacy team who attend policy meeting at UNHCR Geneva.

The book is about the work over the last 33 years, fighting with and for refugee women for their rights and to address the endemic sexual and gender-based violence which so many of them endure. 

Back in 1985 at a major United Nations Women’s Conference in Nairobi, refugee women and girls were identified as one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. Six Australian women, including four resettled refugees, were at that meeting and on returning to Australia, founded an organisation, the ANCORW.  With UNSW, they applied to the Federal Government to undertake research into the effectiveness of services for refugee women and girls resettled to Australia, Eileen Pittaway was appointed as the researcher, Linda Bartolomei joined her eight years later, and together they have notched up over 74 years of continuous  research and advocacy in the field!

The aim of the research was to look at the settlement experiences of the women in Australia and how they could be improved.  A thorough literature review suggested that torture and trauma was mainly experienced by men, with women suffering from secondary trauma if their male relatives had been tortured.  Rape and sexual and gender-based violence was barely mentioned.

Towards the end of the questionnaire, a soft question was added “We have heard that some women have bad experiences in refugee camps.  Do you know any women this has happened to?”

It was like breaching a dam wall. The women just wanted to talk.  Eileen was asked to return to their homes, to speak to friends, to do focus groups.  Story after story of rape and sexual torture poured out, and many women stated “it is the first time anyone has ever allowed us to talk about this. This has become an anthem in our work around the world. At the halfway mark in the data collection, it was identified that over 80% of women interviewed had either directly been sexually abused or a close family member had.  The university was horrified – and suggested the sample was skewed!  The sample was increased and in one year Eileen interviewed over 300 women resettled in Australia from 19 different countries.  The statistics stayed the same.

At the same time, a UNHCR initiative The Women at Risk Scheme, designed to identify and fast track vulnerable women for resettlement was adopted by the Australian Government.  Despite the good intent, and the best efforts of organisations such as AMES it failed miserably and in the first three years, was able to identify only 56 women for the 180 places allocated.

In the meantime, Eileen had been invited onto a United Nations Expert Panel on Refugee Women, and the research findings were accepted by them – but this was an isolated example!  We thought that when people in our Government, in NGOs and media saw the evidence they would be horrified and react as we had! How foolish we were! It was not accepted elsewhere. Eileen was told her findings were wrong, she was a man-hater, and attempts were made to block the report.

At the end of the research, and the delivery of the report on Australian service provision, ANCORW decided that as well as fighting for services to address the sexual abuse of refugee women, advocacy focus was to address the failure of the Women at Risk program.  In order to identify why it was failing we travelled to refugee camps across Asia and it was here that we heard what became the title of this book “Only Rape”  which is how numerous senior officials described the experience of many refugee women and why they were not referred to the Women at Risk program. By this time, Linda had joined in the work and in 2002 we travelled to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and to camps on the Thai Burma border documenting evidence from refugee women about the rape and sexual abuse they endured, Based on these findings we received Government funding to continue the research.

At the same time, we were working as part of a network of advocates at the United Nations (UN), at meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Human Rights Council and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Naively, at that time we thought that the answer would lie in Human Rights Law. How wrong we were. Rape at that time was not grounds for torture, nor grounds for refugee status.  This became the focus of our work. Here are two stories which were used in that advocacy.  A judge in the USA, when assessing a woman’s claim for refugee status based on rape in conflict, stated “I cannot give you refugee status on the grounds of rape alone – it is the common experience of women everywhere”.  In a South American state, a de facto couple were captured by rebels and taken to a room, where he was tied to a chair with a gun to his head, and forced to watch seven soldiers rape his partner.  He was granted refugee status on the grounds of tortured, she wasn’t, as it was only rape. These stories were so outrageous that governments finally started to take notice.

This fed into the on-going fight to the have the experience of refugee women acknowledged and addressed. We worked at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 to have Rape acknowledged as a war crime, and then to have this included in the statute of the International Criminal Court. We worked with UNHCR Geneva to introduce new soft law on women at risk, and to write a tool to assist in identifying women at risk.  Back then there were few refugees who were able to access UN meetings to speak for themselves. Whenever possible, and only with signed consent, we filmed advocacy events at a local level as well as international meetings.

However, gains on paper do not equal gains on the ground, or in the hallowed halls of the UN.  As we used our research findings to push to have new laws and policies implemented, we were constantly told by government representatives and many international non-government organisations that we were wrong, and that in any case we were shaming refugees, and that refugee women did not talk about rape.  At one major meeting, furiously angry and frustrated at this denial of refugee women’s voices we asked our filmmaker to urgently put together a short film from our mass of footage to counteract these claims. She quickly dispatched a three-minute compilation of refugee women from around the world talking about rape, and a supportive ally at UNHCR allowed it to be played on a loop while government delegates returned from lunch and settled themselves in the next session.

The response to screening “Women Does Talk About Rape” at the UN worked – and gave substantial support to the passing of policy on refugee women. It also highlighted what we had known all along. That it was not our voices that mattered but the voices of the refugee women themselves. Women had raised their voices to shatter the many silences, in law, policy, practice and in the attitudes of many service providers and researchers which had prevented them from being heard.  The extent of rape and sexual violence they faced every aspect of their lives – during war and conflict, during flight in search of safety, in refugee camps and urban centres in countries of asylum and resettlement could no longer be denied.  What we also knew and was still rarely recognised by policy makers and service providers was that refugee women and girls had so much more to contribute to the debate.

An opportunity to showcase the women’s strengths and capacities arose in 2011 when UNHCR in Geneva invited us to suggest ways that refugee woman and girls could be actively involved in the commemorations for the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention.  Over an intense and often utterly overwhelming seven-month period we undertook a series of five day Dialogues with over 1000 women and adolescent girls and over 200 men in seven different countries, Columbia, India, Jordan, Finland, Thailand, Uganda and Zambia. We used a number of participatory research methods including a strategic planning method called Storyboarding.  Refugee women worked in small groups to analyse the major problems and human rights abuses they were facing in each site and to make recommendations for solutions. Many were already working at a local level in their communities as informal front-line responders and had much to contribute. They were able to share insightful analysis of the root causes and impacts of sexual and gender-based violence on women, their families and communities and to propose realistic and achievable solutions. They were advocating for themselves at a local level.


 A report called Survivors, Protectors, Providers was produced to presented to governments at a major UNHCR policy meeting held in June 2011. This was a crucial meeting as it was designed to encourage governments to make funding and policy commitments known as pledges to improve the lives of refugees at the Commemorative event planned for the December. We were invited to present the report at this meeting but politely declined insisting that it should be the refugee women themselves who presented. It was quite a battle to make it happen but with the support of UNHCR colleagues ten women from five of the countries in which the Dialogues had been conducted spoke for the first time in a formal meeting at the UNHCR Standing Committee. Their presentations were short but extremely powerful and commanded the attention of often distracted government bureaucrats, many whose eyes glistened with tears as they listened. They effectively highlighted how few of the promises that governments, UN agencies and NGOs had made to women and girls had been implemented and how much more needed to be done.

In the years that followed the Regional Dialogues some positive progress was made.  Steps were being taken to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse and the push for gender equality was getting much stronger. Refugee women were demanding and attending training courses, implementing programs, and claiming their rights. Things were now happening that were not even dreamed about when we started this journey. The refugee voice was getting louder, but the fight was far from won. Refugee women were becoming even more determined to be equally included in every level of decision making from the community to the global level. We used every opportunity we could to find ways to support refugee women to participate in important international meetings at the UN. Unexpectedly in late 2016 a new opportunity to positively influence global refugee policy presented itself. This came in the form of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants which was signed by all of the governments who are members of the UN and committed them to do much more to protect refugees.  Most exciting for us was that fact that it was the first international UN document to recognise the extent of sexual and gender based violence faced by all refugee women and girls, and to fully commit to meaningfully including them and refugee women led organisations in finding solutions. 


In practical terms what this meant was that the New York Declaration set the vision for what needed to happen, but UNHCR were given the responsibility of developing a plan of action as part of a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) to make it happen. We knew that we had to be part of drafting that plan!! We managed to convince UNHCR Geneva to fund us and a team of seven incredible refugee women to be part of that process in what came to be known as the Gender Audit Team. Melika was one of those women who must take significant credit for the very strong commitments to refugee women and girls that are contained in the GCR which was agreed to by most of the world’s government in 2018. Over the past five years, with further significant funding from the Australian Government, we and a wide network of refugee women, NGOs, UNHCR and academic partners have been working to make that happen. It is important to say that the work was not all horror, there were always moments of hope working with many incredible refugee women and moments of celebration, humour and laughter in refugee camps and urban slums when we celebrated small gains and sang and danced together. Tragically, the rape and sexual abuse of women had not magically stopped, but it is no longer silenced. Refugee women are speaking out for themselves and identifying solutions and steps which need to be taken to bring them closer to the goal of gender equality, and genuine participation in decision making about their lives and their lives of their families and communities.