Photo: International Women's Day from Daniel Lobo Flickr photo stream

International women’s day is celebrated on the 8th March every year. The day has its origins with the Socialist Party of America that organised a women’s day in February 1909, followed by the suggestion of an annual day. On March 8, 1914, a march in support of women’s suffrage took place in London, where Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested. When women gained suffrage in Russia in 1917, March 8thwas adopted as a national holiday. In 1975 the United Nations adopted the day as a celebration of women, since when it has been adopted to varying degrees across the world as a public holiday, day of protest in favour of women’s rights or celebration of women’s achievements.

Each year a new theme is nominated for International Women’s Day. The theme in 2013 was around action to end violence against women, and in 2010 the theme was around reducing hardships suffered by displaced women.  In 2019 the theme for international women’s day is building a gender-balanced world and in particular through balance in the business world. According to the website:

‘Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue.’

Amid pictures of women (and a man) with their hands extended on either side of their body, the website exhorts us to ‘amplify via social media’:

Post your #IWD2019 message on social media with your “hands out” balance pose for a strong call-to-action for others to also help forge a #BalanceforBetter.

What would the socialist women who fought for suffrage in the early 1900s have made of this business-friendly approach to addressing gender inequalities?

The SEREDA research project is working to understand gender based violence in the migration streams fleeing violent conflict in Syria. Given the focus, we knew we were going to hear terrible stories and, right enough, there has been no shortage of accounts of horrific abuse in our interview material, gathered from across Turkey, Sweden, the UK and Australia.

We began to hear stories of abuse and harassment suffered by migrants during their flight from Syria and Afghanistan to seek refuge from violence in 2015. Representatives from the organisations providing services across Europe said that women and children were being exposed to sexual violence. Sex in exchange for food, for shelter, for sea passage with traffickers and rape at various stages of the displacement, arrival and settlement. And for women and children in transition there was very little support or service available.

Fleeing from violent conflict is dangerous and unregulated, with women and children subject to sexual attack from traffickers and national security officers, as well as other migrants.  Women and girls are regularly at risk during exile. And that risk does not necessarily recede when refuge is claimed.  Refugee camps can be dangerous spaces for women where sexual aggression is normalised whilst simultaneously denied (often for political reasons). When unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied child migrants arrived in Sweden in 2015/16, they were allocated to group accommodation. This accommodation was often unsuitable, especially for the minority of young migrants who were girls, who sometimes felt unsafe and threatened, reporting toilets, showers and / or bedrooms that could not be locked. The lack of privacy meant that girls who were already uncertain and frightened felt more vulnerable.

But rape and assault and the lack of safety after claiming asylum are not the worst of the stories that we’ve gathered in the project. The worst stories were from women who told a faith based international NGO that they could not understand why their long migration journey from East Africa had to involve so much sexual assault. These women had been sexually assaulted so regularly throughout their migration journey, as well as after their arrival and settlement in Europe, that they assumed this was a widely accepted norm. This is horrific: that refugees who have, in theory, arrived in a place of refuge continue to be assaulted and have the impression that this is the way of the world.

Sexual violence is deplorable, but what makes it so hard to tackle is that sexual assault and harassment are enmeshed with other forms of violence. Refugee women who are raped, may also be poor, stigmatised and marginalised, and the effects of interpersonal violence are compounded with structural and symbolic violence. These different forms of violence reinforce one another. How can refugee women subject to these different types of violence make the successful transition to integrate into a new society? The transition to being a secure and confident member of a new society is difficult enough, under the best of conditions. How can women who have been repeatedly assaulted support their children to integrate? Our research focusses on how governmental and non-governmental agencies can support refugees subject to sexual and gender based violence in making these successful transitions. Many women do make this difficult transition and support their family members to settle and to thrive too, with phenomenal acts of courage and tenacity.

There is much to celebrate in terms of women’s suffrage, improved access to education, employment and self-determination since the first international women’s day was celebrated in 1911. But with women fleeing conflict and poverty to claim refuge being subject to regular and insistent sexual assault, there remains much to protest.