Solange never imagined that she would leave her country. But the violence in her town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo became too much and was too close. Members of armed militia groups killed many of Solange’s family friends. They had no choice but to leave. During their chaotic departure, she lost track of her parents and siblings. Alone at 24 years old, Solange entered a country she had never been to and overnight became a refugee. She is now 33 and has yet to locate her family members.
Living in a refugee camp in Rwanda as a single mother, Solange tries to find creative ways to make small amounts of money, but she finds it difficult to survive. “I just want a better life for my daughter,” she told me. “I don’t want her to rely on food handouts, I don’t want her to feel unsafe, I don’t want her to be a refugee. She is only five years old now, but she could be such an amazing woman if given the chance.”
This is the story of so many refugee women: Moving, rebuilding, adapting, innovating, and sometimes most difficult of all, surviving. And it is a story that must not be overlooked. We have so much to learn from refugee women, women like Solange who don’t just want assistance, but who want safety, opportunity, and to be part of the conversation.
Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day during which we celebrate the achievements of women around the world, highlight continuing challenges, and recommit to working toward the goal of gender equality. In fact, this year’s theme is “Choose to Challenge.” To me, this means challenging the status quo.
We know that gender equality remains a distant aspiration almost everywhere in the world—the data makes this clear. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit women and girls harder than men. Gender-based violence is at record highs, women are leaving the workforce in huge numbers, and sexual and reproductive health rights are being rolled back around the world. However, all these factors are magnified for women who have been forced to flee their homes.
Refugee women face all of the same challenges as women around the world, but they do so in communities and countries that are not their own. They rarely enjoy a sense of security, and—by virtue of being displaced—face new risks to their safety. Under such conditions and with few choices, the resilience shown by women like Solange is all the more worthy of our admiration, respect, and attention.
Even with insecurity and a lack of options, refugee women adapt and grow, despite the odds stacked against them. As Yanira Gonzalez, a Venezuelan refugee in Colombia explained to me, “The simple act of coming from another country and living in an unknown place makes you look at things through fresh eyes.” And as another Venezuelan refugee and former journalist Jhormari Díaz noted, “Migrating has given me the opportunity to grow on my own. It has really inspired me to believe in myself. I have learned that even in the midst of personal struggles, we can help the greater community.”
As it did for Jhormari, the strength and resilience refugee women demonstrate in the face of new circumstances can transform how they think about themselves and their power. This is something all women can learn from: That our challenges can be the catalyst for increased confidence.
And yet these experiences are so often forgotten. Dorcas Manzi, a Rwandan refugee in the United States told me, “Americans see that you are different and ask why you are here and not home. They don’t know what refugees go through. They don’t take time to learn our stories.”
As someone who has spent my career listening to refugee women, it is clear to me that if we want to improve the status of women in the world, if we really want to “choose to challenge,” we must learn the stories of refugee women and learn from the stories of refugee women.
It has been 110 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed in Europe. More than a century later, we find ourselves in a global pandemic. There are dozens of active conflicts. And many of the world’s economies are struggling. All of these global crises disproportionately affect women. If there was any International Women’s Day in which we needed to center the stories of refugee women—individuals who have adapted, survived, and in some cases, even thrived during crises—it is now.
Jhormari said it best: “It’s important to never lose hope. Good things can come from difficult situations. We’re always growing. Women have been resilient and brave. We’re constantly transforming ourselves so we can lead better lives.”
The refugee women I have met from Somalia, to Venezuela, to Ethiopia, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Myanmar, to South Sudan, to Rwanda, to Syria are different in so many ways. But they all have at least two characteristics in common: They are resilient and brave. And they want to be included in the global narrative. They want their struggles to be part of the renewed resolve to challenge the status quo.
On this International Women’s Day, let’s also be resilient and brave. Let’s ensure that the survival, capabilities, and needs of these 40 million refugee women and girls do not go unnoticed. Let’s choose to challenge and include refugee women. Let us listen and learn.
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