THE BLOG
09/03/2015 12:16 GMT | Updated 06/05/2015 06:59 BST

Feminist and Fearless: in Praise of Refugee Women

'Women of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaner!' That was Betty Friedan's feminist call to arms in 1963. And just as in 1963, most women today would happily swap their vacuum cleaner for meaningful work. But whilst the struggle for life choices over chores and childcare is still being fought, there are some women who have already lost everything and for whom a vacuum cleaner would be a welcome luxury.

We live in an age where there are more than 51 million people uprooted by war, violence and persecution, more than at any time since the Second World War. More than half of them are women and girls, and too often they are the collateral damage of warfare: raped, exploited, vulnerable. But the flipside of female vulnerability is resilience. Women are often the ones holding together a family and starting again from scratch when country, home and possessions are lost. This is all too evident the women who have fled the conflict in Syria, which now enters its fifth year with no signs of abating. More than 150,000 Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt - or one in four of all Syrian refugee households - are headed by women facing a lone fight for survival.

Meanwhile, in the UK, around a third of asylum seekers are women on their own or with children. Research in Scotland has shown that nearly half of women seeking asylum there had experienced sexual violence. But while the government has launched an initiative to combat sexual violence in conflict overseas, there is a disconnect with the kind of support offered to women who seek refuge on these shores. Last month the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that female asylum seekers face a 'culture of disbelief' which leads to women being less likely than men to receive a correct decision on their claim. Three quarters of women are initially denied asylum and although many of their cases are overturned on appeal, they are forced to navigate a system which rather than offering protection, only serves to add to the trauma that they have fled.

Women seeking asylum in the UK can also potentially find themselves in detention whilst their claim is being decided. For women who are already traumatised, being locked up can have a further devastating impact on their mental and physical health. This week Channel 4 exposed the shocking treatment of female detainees inside Yarl's Wood immigration centre, where they were referred to by Serco guards as 'animals' and 'bitches'.

Also this week an all-parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention led by Sarah Teather MP published its findings, which include the distressing impact of detention on women, who report feeling intimidated by male staff and lacking in privacy. One woman told the inquiry: 'I can tell you, anybody who is [on] suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl's Wood immigration centre,, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked. You can hear them talking [about] it.'

I recently met a Zimbabwean woman who had come to the UK as a twelve year-old. A top-grade student and a qualified nurse, she has worked for years for the NHS. She is a lesbian and considers London her home. But because her refugee status is reviewed every five years, she lives in constant fear that the next review will mean deportation to Zimbabwe, where being gay carries the threat of violence. You can't help thinking that he refugee women who manage to rebuild their lives in the UK do so not because of the asylum system, but in spite of it.

But in a week of such bad news for refugees, one event sought to shine a light on their strengths rather than their struggles. The Women on the Move Awards, presented by UNHCR and The Forum, recognised the exceptional women from across the UK who, against all odds, have made an outstanding contribution to women's empowerment and integration. These women left their homes and loved ones, fleeing war and persecution, and managed not only to build a new life for themselves and their families, but also to support and inspire people and communities across the UK.

The 2015 Woman of the Year was awarded to Sonia Khoury, who has overcome adversity to make a better future for herself and for others. In Syria, she was a doctor who helped Iraqi refugees. When the conflict started, she became a refugee herself. Since then, she has worked tirelessly from Wales to Westminster, campaigning for the UK to resettle its fair share of Syrian refugees, and helping other refugee and migrant women who are victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives.

Accepting her award, Sonia Khoury said: 'As a woman, and a refugee, I know how difficult it is for Syrians. I want to reflect that experience and make their voices heard. Women are so powerful, and whatever the obstacles, we can overcome them together.'

A Special Jury Award went to Asma Mohamed Ali. Asma was born on the Brava Coast in Somalia and came to the UK in 1992 having spent much of her childhood in Kenyan refugee camps. Now working in Barnet at the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, Asma has built a thriving centre and education programme that supports 200 students and their families. In 2013, her Bravanese community hall was burnt down in a racist arson attack. But within a week, while six months pregnant, Asma forged ties between the local Jewish and Muslim communities to keep the students' programme going, and led community action to raise over £1 million to rebuild the hall.

So on International Women's Day, let's remember the struggles that refugee women face, but above all let's celebrate the unsung heroines, women like Sonia Khoury and Asma Mohamed Ali, who are brave and strong, feminist and fearless.