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Are We Forgetting About the Women and Girls Also Fleeing to Europe?

Although media coverage has focused on young men making the perilous crossing, over 100,000 women have fled to Europe's shores this year and almost one in four refugees arriving in Europe is a child.

When the IRC spoke to Syrian women making the arduous journey from Greece to Macedonia and asked them how we should respond to their needs, one lady in Serbia told us; 'Thank you. This is the first time on my journey people ask what I need, and care.' Why are their stories not being told? Why are their voices not being heard?

Although media coverage has focused on young men making the perilous crossing, over 100,000 women have fled to Europe's shores this year and almost one in four refugees arriving in Europe is a child.

Women and girls especially are one of the most vulnerable groups. From inside Syria to neighbouring countries and onwards via the long, terrifying journey to Europe, women and girls face targeted violence. Armed groups target them with sexual violence and slavery, landlords and smugglers exploit them because of their desperate situation, parents force girls to marry due to extreme poverty and lack of access to education, and partners are more likely to be violent to them because of the pressures of struggling to survive. According to Asylum Aid, European countries are less likely to believe women's and girls' experiences of persecution than that of men when they claim asylum linked to the specific gender-based violence they face in their countries of origin.

Despite numerous reports on the need to provide specific support and protection for women and girls during emergencies when they are at their most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, according to Buzzfeed, the humanitarian community has not done enough to protect women and girls in transit to and during their stay in Europe's camps.

After years of experience responding to violence against women and girls in emergencies, the IRC knows only too well that it will be too late to help if you wait for women and girls to come forward to report the violence they have faced. On the contrary, women and girls will come forward as soon as life-saving services such as health and counselling are made available.

This is borne out by new IRC research on the Greek island of Lesbos - one of the gateways to Europe for many refugees. Based on preliminary discussions with women and girls, many feel that survivors of sexual violence would not come forward for fear of being identified. The IRC's new transit centre opening next week - which has been built in the north of the island to receive refugees as they reach the shore - will have a specially designed centre for women and girls. In this centre, they will be able to report sexual or other types of violence and receive or be referred for lifesaving treatment without having to be publicly identified.

The IRC's protection team also looks out for pregnant women, women travelling alone or female heads of households and helps them to register and find accommodation. All IRC staff and partners on Lesbos receive training in responding to violence against women and girls in emergencies and the Protection Officers that are responsible for individual cases receive additional support.

In Kara Tepe transit camp near the capital Mytilene, the IRC has built secure showers and toilets with separate access for men and women and erected lighting so that the camp is well lit. Measures like these are mandatory for all agencies to reduce incidents of sexual assault in refugee camp settings.

Recent research showed how humanitarian sectors like shelter and water and sanitation are failing women and girls needs in the Syria region. As if their journeys were not difficult enough, they are failed yet one more time when they claim asylum in Europe.

In the UK and other European countries, women are often denied asylum on grounds of credibility, according to this research by Asylum Aid. This is because proving gender-based violence is harder than proving the type of persecution that men face, for example, which can be more political and public in nature. What's more, gender-based violence survivors face various challenges when asked to remember excruciating details about trauma they have undergone.

The UK Government has appropriately prioritised women and girls' protection and empowerment within the Department of International Development's humanitarian assistance. Globally, their funding for these programmes increased by over 500% between 2012 and 2014, with funding supporting over 109 programmes specifically addressing violence against women and girls. The Foreign and Commonwealth office has also recognised women and girls' vulnerability and the need for their protection and empowerment within their Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.

Therefore why not afford the same recognition and protection measures to women and girls arriving in Europe? EU governments should be providing life-saving services on their arrival and prioritise women and girls within EU and UK asylum and resettlement policies and practices. Women and girls deserve to be believed, protected and afforded special protection according to their specific needs, at all stages of the displacement cycle.

Diana Trimiño | Women's Protection & Empowerment Policy Advisor, International Rescue Committee

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