Q&A With Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar: Refugee Women and Girls

As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, the World Refugee & Migration Council (WRMC) talked with Council member and independent Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar to discuss how the international community can better respond to the needs of refugee women and girls, empower them as agents of change, and confront systemic issues of discrimination. Read in full below.

WRMC: Refugee women are consistently let down by the international refugee system, where they are marginalized and suffer sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination. What can be done to address these issues?

Senator Omidvar: First, a gender lens needs to be applied to all refugee responses, locally, regionally and internationally.  Our multinational responses also need to be filtered through this lens.  In this way, we can impact on the services refugee women receive in camps and impact the policies designed at the global level. Second, there needs to be gender training for all refugee actors and the program responses need to be tailored to gender-based realities. Finally, we need to hold corrupt actors, be it leaders or peacekeepers for example, to account when there are acts of gender-based violence.

WRMC: Women and girls are also all too often viewed solely as victims, left out of decision-making processes and leadership opportunities, despite the crucial role they play in keeping their communities and families together through crises. How can this be addressed? 

Senator Omidvar: Refugee women and girls need their voices elevated in decision-making rooms across the globe. The Canadian government recently committed to having refugees to be a part of their delegations and that should continue but there needs to be a focus on refugee women’s voices at those tables. Other countries should do the same.

Ratna Omidvar

“Refugee women and girls need their voices elevated in decision-making rooms across the globe.”

Senator Ratna Omidvar, Council Member

WRMC: What role does gender mainstreaming play in generating the necessary political will and resources to develop and implement policy and practices that address structural vulnerabilities that underpin pervasive gender inequalities? 

Senator Omidvar: It plays a crucial role. However, studies have shown that despite gender being a main priority of refugee responses, implementation of gender mainstreaming is ad hoc and sluggish. This needs to change. A transformative approach is needed where there is intentional action on gender-based responses that uses data and evidence to guide the response. Plus this needs to be followed by accountability in a transparent manner.

WRMC: How can the international community work towards the development of refugee capacities for self-reliance, and in particular, the often-ignored capacity of women and girls in refugee and host communities to be agents of change? In what ways can these capacities be harnessed to potentially address funding shortfalls?

Senator Omidvar: Refugee women and girls have many incredible talents and perspectives. What is needed is for those talents and voices to be recognized, encouraged and nurtured. That starts by creating space for women and girls to have a voice in the programs and policy responses that guide displacement. Having this voice means creating space on the ground, in refugee camps, IDP camps but also at international fora. By creating that space and truly listening to their voices, women and girls can be empowered as agents of change.

On December 11 2020, the World Refugee & Migration Council will host a virtual conference led by Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders (GIRWL) to discuss the impact of sexual and gender-based violence on refugee women and girls. The event will bring together women refugees from around the world at a critical moment. Panels will include refugee women from around the world leading discussions on topics of gender-based violence including access to sexual and reproductive health as well as economic, physical, psychological, and sexual violence against women.