Remembering refugee women this International Women’s Day

Every year International Women’s Day celebrates women and their accomplishments not only in Malaysia but also around the world. But there’s a group of women whose struggles, efforts and potential for achievement are often absent from the public discourse and celebrations.

Refugee women are some of the most vulnerable groups in our society, yet they are among the least protected. Malaysia is home to more than 150,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Approximately 34% of these are women.

The protection of women and girls is enshrined in international law, especially in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against All Women (CEDAW). On February 20, the Government of Malaysia underwent its second CEDAW review after a 12-year absence. The CEDAW Committee expressed its disappointment with the lack of meaningful progress on gender equality reported by the government. The issues included female genital mutilation, discrimination under Malaysia’s dual system of civil and syariah law, the criminalization of LGBTQI persons, child marriage and marital rape.

The treatment of refugee women was raised by a representative from Asylum Access Malaysia as well as various members of the Committee. In their replies, the Malaysian delegates said that asylum seekers enjoy sufficient protection and are no different from other Malaysians.

Nevertheless, refugee women in Malaysia are denied legal status. They have limited access to formal employment, healthcare and justice. Many, including pregnant and other vulnerable women, continue to be detained in immigration detention centers in deplorable conditions, without adequate food, water and medical care.

The women we’ve met left their countries because they were persecuted for their religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, or gender. Their personal stories are heartbreaking. They speak of the hardships they’ve endured in their countries and the abuse and discrimination they face in Malaysia.

They are women and girls like Amiina who was just 13 years old when she left her country after she was chosen, against her mother’s will, to marry the member of a well-known terrorist organization. The same group kidnapped her brother twice and may have been involved in her father’s murder. Leaving her family behind, she came to Malaysia, where she experienced forced labor and was raped by a man who promised to marry her. Instead, he left her alone and deeply traumatized.

Madina, a 25-year-old woman from a persecuted minority, fled two conflict zones before coming to Malaysia where she has suffered discrimination and mistreatment even from other refugees from her home country. She also was raped and is now pregnant, doing odd jobs to survive and battling depression with little access to medical care.

Current policies in Malaysia do not adequately protect refugee women from exploitation, arbitrary arrest, and deportations that violate international law.

Refugee women are vulnerable to sexual abuse in detention centers, in the workplace and at home. Without legal status, they’re afraid to report their cases and seek justice.

Healthcare is a luxury for refugee women who cannot afford the high costs of basic treatments, family planning, pre-natal and natal care, nutrition, and treatment for sexual violence. In February 2016, a young refugee women detained in an immigration detention centre following the Andaman Sea crisis, died while in the custody of the immigration department. The cause of death was TB, an entirely treatable infection.

Without work permits, refugee women in Malaysia are forced into informal work where they endure exploitation, low wages, abuse, unfair dismissal and withholding of payment. They’re also at higher risk of being trafficked.

At Asylum Access Malaysia we recognize the potential of refugee women and empower them to rebuild their lives, connect to their communities and access their rights.

We’ve seen first hand their resilience and desire to contribute to Malaysian society. With local services catered to their needs severely lacking, young refugee women, such as the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN), are taking the lead to fill the gaps, supporting each other and educating their communities on their rights and ways to overcome their challenges.

The stories of women like Amiina, Madina and countless others, are evidence of the obstacles thousands of refugee women have to overcome here in Malaysia, across the region and around the world.

Although recent developments, such as a work permit pilot program for Rohingya, seem to indicate that Malaysia is taking positive steps in the right direction, it is still some way from fully respecting, promoting and protecting refugee rights.

Asylum Access Malaysia, in its submission to the CEDAW Committee last week, called on the Malaysian government to revise domestic laws to include specific rights and protections for refugees within the Immigration Act. The government should also ensure they have adequate facilities and services for refugee women while in custody, and consider the implementation of alternatives to detention. We also recommend the implementation of a robust strategy to address and prevent incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.

We’re in the midst of a global refugee crisis with more than 65 million people displaced around the world. Malaysia has an opportunity to show that being a non-signatory to the UN Refugee Convention does not prevent a country from taking measures to integrate and protect refugees and to benefit from their contributions while other permanent solutions are explored.

Those efforts will require political will, public support and a clear commitment in the form of effective domestic legal reform.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the stories of refugee women and give them the attention they deserve. They are stories of struggle and inequality, but also of survival and inspiration. We must recognise their place in society and give them a real cause for celebration.

Written by AAM Policy Advocate Federico Rodriguez