Food shortages and aid cuts put more displaced women at risk of gender-based violence
Roda Jock*, a 28-year-old South Sudanese refugee who fled to Ethiopia’s Gambella region in 2018, would not have ventured into the forest alone if there had been enough food at home for her and her family. But funding shortfalls have seen the monthly food assistance for over 750,000 refugees in Ethiopia cut by 50 per cent since June.
“In the camp, the food is not enough, so the only option for some women is to go to the forest to collect firewood to sell,” explained Roda.
Firewood is also often the only fuel source available to refugees to cook their food rations.
“As women, we face a lot of risks by going to the forest. You need to walk for at least four hours to arrive at a very distant place where you can gather some sticks to bring home.”
On her long walk to the forest that day, Roda was followed by a man who ambushed her and pulled her to the ground. She managed to slip out of his grasp, but he pursued her until she ran into a group of men who accompanied her back to the camp.
Although she escaped her attacker, she still feels traumatized by the incident, which left her feeling helpless.
"If food was available at home, women would not need to face all these risks."
“This is not an isolated occurrence,” she added. “Many women have found themselves in these sorts of situations many times.”
In her role as a community worker supporting gender-based violence survivors for the International Medical Corps (IMC), one of the UN Refugee Agency’s partner organizations in Ethiopia, Roda has met women who did not manage to escape their attackers. Some were raped while out collecting firewood, others while walking to and from farms in search of work.
“It is because of the food shortage,” she said. “If food was available at home, women would not need [to face] all these risks.”
Refugees and internally displaced people in many countries where UNHCR works have seen their food and other assistance cut as funding shortages have forced humanitarian agencies to scale back their assistance. Joint advocacy by UNHCR and the World Food Programme will see food assistance for refugees in Ethiopia increase by 34 per cent from next month, but without more funding, refugees in other countries could see more cuts to their aid in the coming months and into next year as the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine disrupt supply chains, inflate food and fuel prices, and push up the costs of delivering humanitarian assistance.
- See also: UNHCR warns rising tide of hunger, insecurity, and underfunding worsening gender-based violence risks
The impacts of these cuts are being felt by forcibly displaced people across the world, but women and girls are often the first to suffer. Food insecurity was already higher among women than men. That gender disparity grew in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and widened even further in 2021, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual global report on food security and nutrition. In many refugee hosting countries, economies had no chance to recover before the war in Ukraine caused further inflation and food price rises.
Lockdowns and economic downturns have also driven up the incidence of gender-based violence, particularly among populations of displaced people.
Women tend to prioritize the needs of their children and other family members over their own and may put themselves at risk when they try to find work or an income. A shortage of food can also increase tensions in the home leading to higher rates of violence at the hands of partners. Forcibly displaced women with limited access to social safety nets, information and work are more likely to be trapped in relationships with abusive partners.
“I’d say that 80 per cent of the women we work with are survivors of some sort of gender-based violence … Moving countries makes it that much worse, because it makes women that much more vulnerable and dependent,” said Gloria Padilla, a 47-year-old Colombian-born mother of two who moved to Venezuela in 2003 to escape an abusive relationship but returned to her country in 2017. She now leads a grassroots organization called Fundación Un Nuevo Ser that supports Venezuelan refugee and migrant women, as well as Colombian returnees, in several cities in north-western Colombia.
She said that many of the women she works with feel they have no choice but to stay in abusive relationships because they fear not being able to put food on the table or pay the rent if they leave. She added that rising inflation is making the problem worse. “If most of the women we work with were already earning substandard wages, or barely making ends meet by selling coffee or other products on the streets, rising prices have only made it that much harder for them to survive, which of course makes it that much harder for them to free themselves from abusive relationships.”
The type of informal work that Venezuelan refugee and migrant women, many of whom lack papers, are able to secure in Colombia also increases their risk of exposure to gender-based violence.
“Some women find themselves in such difficult circumstances that entering into an abusive relationship or selling sex seems like the only way out,” said Gloria, adding that her organization tries to step in and provide support so that women are not forced to make such harmful choices.
"We're all seeing our money going less and less far."
“At Fundación Un Nuevo Ser, we draw on strength in numbers to try to help. None of us has much, but if we all put in just a little, we can sometimes raise enough money to help someone out of a very difficult situation,” she said, acknowledging that inflation has taken a bite out of the group’s ability to help. “We all are seeing our money going less and less far, so it’s very hard.”
While the need for programmes to address gender-based violence affecting forcibly displaced people has never been greater, funding is not keeping pace. UNHCR estimates the budgetary needs for its programmes to prevent and respond to gender-based violence at US$330 million in 2023, the highest ever.
In Sudan, another country where food assistance for refugees has been cut by 50 per cent in recent months, the lack of funding is having a major impact on gender-based violence programming, according to Alisona Rajbanshi, a protection officer with UNHCR based in Khartoum.
“It’s difficult to provide full geographical coverage for gender-based violence prevention and response,” she said. “Psychosocial support services for survivors are being impacted in some locations. There is a lack of safe houses for survivors.”
At Um Rakuba refugee camp in eastern Sudan, which opened in late 2020 to shelter Ethiopian refugees fleeing the conflict in Tigray, the lack of adequate funding for services to support gender-based violence survivors has consequences for women in need of protection.
“Every day we are observing physical violence between husband and wife – because of the money, because of the situation, because of the life,” said Bisrat Kifle, a 26-year-old former English teacher from Tigray who volunteers at a women’s centre in the camp run by UNHCR partner Alight.
“The first thing most gender-based violence survivors ask for is emergency shelter,” she said. “When she fights with the perpetrator …. she fears to stay in that space. She needs a safe space.”
"If they received the full ration, everything would be better."
Besides running awareness-raising sessions and referring women to one of the humanitarian agencies in the camp working with survivors, Bisrat and her fellow volunteers listen to women’s concerns, offering them support and a shoulder to cry on.
“We listen to them carefully, with respect,” said Bisrat. “If she wants to cry, we let her cry. We can’t promise anything because if we promise them, we will hurt them if that’s not fulfilled.”
“If they received the full ration, everything would be better,” she added. “It’s difficult to be fine if you’re displaced from your country, your home. It’s difficult to say everything will be okay, but it could be better than this.”
*Name changed for protection reasons.
Additional reporting by Jenny Barchfield in Colombia, Kelly Koo in Ethiopia, and Althea Gonzales and Mary Burton Kwanjana in Sudan.