Ref. :  000000066
Date :  2001-01-22
Language :  English
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Displaced and refugee women

Refugees

Author :  Rada Iveković


Deportees, refugees, displaced population in huge and so far unheard of numbers are perhaps the emblematic and the most poignant picture of our times. Nowadays it has become arduous if not impossible to distinguish between political and economic refugees, although international conventions still try to maintain the difference in order to fence off a part of the pressure of this destitute and growing crowd. War refugees, refugees from massacres and genocides as well as escapees from violently partitioned countries are the biggest and the most tragic segment of transborder migrations.

In some practices of long-term crossings of the border, a borderline population may be compelled to constantly come and go, having no clear citizenship and suffering disadvantages or being instrumentalized by one or more stately authority. These people may also be intimately at odds as to their "national" or "ethnic" belonging, and hesitant as to their stately allegiance. Such current situations have become the rule in several continents, and no international law, accords, or UN resolutions have been able to deal with it with sufficient efficiency or for that matter, with terms that correspond to this new reality. The binary "citizen - non-citizen" is not any more an adequate tool of analysis of the condition of the displaced of the world or for that matter of the inner displaced and of the internal non-citizens, those who do not have actual access to their formal, legal rights. 1 Moreover, the big scale migrations and displacements of population affect the most southern and poor countries, while it is the rich and developed world that establishes protectionist measures.

The contemporary image of refugees and displaced persons seen in the news all over the world, and from any continent, is that of women with small children and with some elderly men, all of them struck by hunger, disease, exhaustion, all homeless, haggard, without any property, not knowing where to go. The survivors of a greater violence, of ethnic or religious cleansing, of massacres and in flight from terror. Alas, this picture is all too familiar and it is true. In any refugee camp, women are the majority, entrusted moreover in their destitute condition with the disabled and with children. Whereas there are about 1/3 of women for 2/3 men among the disappeared (in countries where disappearances had been practiced as an instrument of terror, as in Guatemala), whereas there are practically about 100 % men in the armies, a majority of men in the guerrillas, different militias and the para-military, there are about 99 % of women subject of sexual violence in times of war, riots, huge population movements, and there are regularly more than a half of women in the refugee and displaced population. 2 The condition of the refugee and the displaced is in itself a condition of being submitted to a prolonged violence, often forever.

When the soldiers approached, men fled towards the mountains (if they were not away with the guerrillas and resisting), but women were left behind. The case, as it is described for Guatemala (and it may be the case in other countries too) is too frequent to be really the result of chance. The men explained regularly that they thought the soldiers wouldn't do anything to the women (although the opposite was true). And, the women had the children to take care of and to drag, and their meager goods in their hands: some pots and clothes, a chicken or two to save. When they attempted to follow their men into the hills with all that, they would lag behind and would rapidly be caught up by the army. Rape and assassination would often follow. Men fled without luggage, without the children, and according to them on the instigation of the women themselves. The report of the Truth Commission "Guatemala. A Memory of Silence" evokes an amazing amount of such cases, although it doesn't judge them.

Refugee camps in Africa, the Balkans, or elsewhere are indeed an image of horror. The women we see there - when we see the pictures: but most are never seen - are standardized, whatever be their country. They are shown as degraded sub-humans, almost gone savage, sub-civilized, turned rural even when they are not, living at best under tents and cooking (when there is something to cook) in the open, voiceless, powerless, seemingly uneducated, deprived of any dignity and privacy, unfit for any "useful" or "performing" purpose. In other words, by the mass media, they are often depicted as superfluous and as a burden for humanity: those for whom a place should be found, whereas there is none in the world order as it is. A dispensable population.

Refugees are indeed a burden for the host-country, and also for the international community when the latter cares to bring in some more or less symbolic help. (Symbolic because the only adequate measures would really mean changing the situation: preventing it instead of trying to heal.) Refugees are the result of a situation which should never have taken place. They are shown as a picture of the other. Host countries try to get rid of them as soon as possible, and to send them "back" even to unsafe conditions. Refugees and deportees are there because states distinguish between "us" and "them", between citizens (nationals) and non, even when the "strangers" have relatives and friends among us. They are seen and portrayed as non subjects, therefore in principle non-citizens or not capable of citizenship. As minors. They are not allowed to present or represent themselves. Their movements are limited, their space altered and non-existent, (re)movable, their identity ignored and not respected, their individuality trampled. This is made easier by the fact that most of them are women, seen as non-subjects anyway in a patriarchal system.

The context into which a refugee is forcibly inserted is abnormally depoliticized. The context doesn't allow for the expression of their individuality, of their subjectivity, of their citizenship, of their political, social or other choices, for their mere expression through language and through the continuity of a narrative, no matter how numerous they are. They are most of the time without any documents, or with provisional documents, or with wrong (foreign) documents. This means that they have no or have scarce and limited access to legal protection. Often, they have been brought together by distressful circumstances and do not represent a unified collective subject-agent. And, conditions of extreme deprivation do not favour any kind of initiative.

Yet refugees, and refugee women moreover, do assume their subjectivity. Sometimes, historic events, times of crisis, have favoured the construction of new and never before existing political subjects, such as, for example, groups of widows or women in general, peasants, or new nationalities. Putting their experience into words is fundamental. It is only the narrative that can give rise to a new identity and political claims: it has to be said, but it also has to be heard. Narration gives a material reality which is never there in silence.

This means that the women refugees and displaced, like anyone else, are capable of becoming political subjects and of taking their own responsibilities, although their stereotyped image and the way they are depicted doesn't show it. If this does not happen, it is the context into which they are put, and not they, who is to blame and has to be transformed. It is a question of world order, and a problem on a larger scale of the 20-21st centuries. It doesn't mean on the other hand that nothing could be done on a smaller scale to change the reality of the refugees women and, more than that, to change the political reality of a globalized system producing refugees through warfare, through the economic order responsible for organized and maintained hunger in poor countries, and through man-produced environmental catastrophes. The first civil right of the refugee should be the right to return safely home but also the right not to be deported against his will. Yet their situation contradicts it.

The fact that women refugees are rather presented through a stereotyped image than allowed to represent themselves, that they are deprived of their personal and group identity contributes to creating a sort of poor myth about the woman-refugee where the order of things is inverted upside-down. It is the myth, not the real human situation, that sanctions the absence of power of the refugee, her insignificance, her identity as the other. The myth and the myth narrative comfort the listener, the story teller, in believing that "we" are not like that, that "we" are not the other, that "we"are not rendered powerless and that "we"are safe. We could never become refugees. But the perspective changes the minute when we imagine ourselves as other, ourselves as homeless, refugee, deported. Then we know that, if we were a woman, if we were a woman refugee, if we were the other, we would resist. We must recognize, indeed, the right and even the duty to resist conditions that dehumanize us or anyone else, conditions that lead to violence, to war, to injustice. For that, we must work for democracy, which also means working for the future. Because it is at some point in the past that, with a responsible individual choice and decision made in common with others I decided, together with these others, of my and their condition today.


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