Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is widespread in the forced migration journey. Born of crises such as armed conflict, SGBV travels along migration routes even affecting victims at places of refuge. Women and girls are disproportionally affected, with 1 in 3 experiencing SGBV in her lifetime, but men and boys are also vulnerable, especially to torture and trafficking.
Many factors lie at the root of SGBV including loss of family, social connections and finance, economic deprivation, social exclusion, legal protection gaps for migrants, poor mental health, and lack of language skills. Religious discrimination, xenophobia, racism, and sexism all exacerbate migrants’ vulnerability to SGBV.
Faith and religious adherence are part of the lived experience for many communities around the world. Subsequently, many forced migrants maintain a religious affiliation as a key symbol of connection with ‘home’. Faith allows migrants to draw strength, meaning and comfort from a sense of belonging. Many resort to their faith to protect themselves in times of painful and traumatic experiences. But faith can also represent a risk - for example, religious discrimination and persecution can increase vulnerability to SGBV.
Religion never comes on its own – it intersects with culture, power, and politics. SGBV can be condoned by religious ideas and teachings, yet humanitarian organisations are often unable to deal with religion’s influence on experiences of violence and exploitation of women and minorities.Sandra Pertek, Ahmed Aldawoody, and Amjad Saleem
Religion never comes on its own – it intersects with culture, power, and politics. SGBV can be condoned by religious ideas and teachings, yet humanitarian organisations are often unable to deal with religion’s influence on experiences of violence and exploitation of women and minorities. We, therefore, need greater faith literacy allied to innovative and faith-sensitive approaches to reduce SGBV occurrences among forced migrants.
Working with religion in SGBV prevention can be useful at many levels. Faith is a key component for communities who are often the first responders in humanitarian action, operating with local knowledge to address specific community problems. Personal and communal religious resources can thus help to tackle SGBV along the forced migration journey.
All sources of influence – whether religious teachings, cultural norms, local beliefs, or traditions – can help to mobilise protection against SGBV. Even when monopolised religious interpretations are used to justify the perpetration of sexual violence and exploitation of women, it is important to discuss such interpretations. This helps us to clarify and better understand causes of violence and develop relevant protection, response, and prevention mechanisms. For example, constructively engaging with religious leaders can help to respond to and prevent SGBV in humanitarian crises.
For example, as a significant number of armed conflicts take place in Muslim-majority countries and Islamic law plays a vital role in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims globally, the influence of Islamic law cannot be ignored in developing SGBV protection and prevention approaches in Muslim settings. Muslim institutions and religious leaders can help to develop SGBV protection responses to support the healing of survivors regardless of their background.
Faith can be the key to unlock solutions for tackling SGBV among survivors of forced displacement, who number more than 100 million globally. The University of Birmingham’s latest research project, unites humanitarian, law and protection experts from the UK, Switzerland, Qatar, Egypt, and Ireland on the 9th of June workshop to explore how best to address the challenges women face in forced displacement in the Muslim world.
Protecting Forcibly Displaced Women and Girls in the Muslim World works toward establishing a new research agenda on women and forced displacement in the Muslim world. It develops an evidence base and conceptual resources for integrating the protection of forcibly displaced women and girls from violence, discrimination and exclusion into humanitarian policy and diplomacy in the Muslim world.
The project identifies dynamics and opportunities for strategic engagement with women’s and girls’ protection in multilateral organisations and humanitarian policy - creating recommendations to put the protection of displaced women and girls on the policy agenda.
There is a need to rethink how we engage with formal and informal female and male faith leaders, faith communities and institutions in SGBV prevention and response, allied to better literacy and sensitivity on addressing misinterpretations of religious perspectives. From an Islamic perspective, scholars of religious texts need to work with practitioners to develop a protection framework that helps us understand and tackle religion as both solution and challenge. There is still much work to do.
Sandra Pertek, University of Birmingham; Ahmed Aldawoody, ICRC/University of Birmingham alumni and Amjad Saleem, IFRC/Advisory Board member