We hate to admit it, but we look at the world through gendered lenses. Women refugee and asylum seekers often deal with a triple disadvantage: immigration status, refugee status and gender. Women refugees and asylum seekers face multiple forms of discrimination and are more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Integration policies often fail to address the particular needs of women as they tend to follow an androcentric approach. What can be done to address the gender blindness of integration policies? Read below three basic yet not commonly practiced steps, in Cyprus at least.

1. Give a voice to women refugees. We do not seek nor hear the voices of refugee women formulating integration policies. As a result, women refugees are excluded from decision-making processes on issues that have a direct impact on their lives. Policy decisions on integration are taken by a central government that is male dominated and not representative of minority populations and women, including migrants and refugees. The needs of refugees are often communicated to the central government through structured consultations or through policy advocacy by local or international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), or self-declared community representatives who are, by and large, men. Women refugees who are interested in establishing legal bodies such as foundations or NGOs often face bureaucratic and legal barriers as well as language restrictions. It is therefore crucial to provide refugee women a platform and a space that would enable them to effectively advocate for policy measures that reflect their specific needs. Facilitating the formation of refugee women-led organisations is critical, as it will contribute to a power shift, enabling refugee women to speak on their own behalf.

2. Offer safe spaces. Research throughout the GLIMER project has revealed the prevalence of violence against refugee women, ranging from sexual harassment though the migration route and upon arrival; physical, sexual and psychological violence; intimate partner violence; as well as trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Perpetrators of violence are often family members, other refugees or members of the local population. Our research has shown that women refugees in reception centres were even reluctant to bathe for fear of sexual harassment or assault. It is therefore important that refugee women, particularly those who have experienced or are at risk of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), have access to women-only accommodation in order to safeguard their safety and wellbeing.

SGBV has severe long-term health consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorders. Psychological support is provided only sporadically by a handful NGOs in Cyprus. Systematic psychological support is essential for women refugees to begin the process of healing and recovery, and should be extended and integrated within wider national policy. Providing such support in safe women-only spaces would also facilitate such recovery.

3. Consider gender dynamics. All integration policies, including language training, education and labour market integration, are impacted by gender dynamics that limit opportunities and access for refugee women and asylum seekers. Integration policies often overlook refugee and migrant women’s double role as family providers and caregivers, and the impact this role has on their availability to attend language classes and/or employment. In the absence of affordable or accessible childcare options, refugees and asylum seekers who are mothers are severely restricted in relation to the type of work available to them, or the time they can dedicate to language training, at least until their children are of school age. This challenge is even greater for single mothers. Also, given that men continue to dominate public spaces and public dialogue, it is likely that they will also dominate language-training classes and work environments.

Integration polices need to recognise these gender dynamics. Policy makers should ensure that all integration programmes are gender responsive and cater to the needs of women. They need to take into account the fact that women are mothers and the main caregivers in their families.  They need to put mechanisms in place that challenge gender stereotypes and biases that interfere in the integration procedures.

Although the three steps to mainstreaming gender across integration might seem very basic, GLIMER research has shown that they are not fully implemented. The National Action Plan on Integration that is yet to be announced in Cyprus is an opportunity to develop synergies among relevant stakeholders to integrate gender equality in migration and integration policy.

Image credit: Sona Circle