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16. May 2019

Working with refugee women: Taking care to reduce the burdens

Women who have fled violence and war are often severely traumatised. However, instead of finding protection, they suffer uncertain rights to stay and often experience new violence. With funding from Aktion Mensch, medica mondiale has launched a project throughout Germany to raise awareness of the special challenges of refugee women.

One female worker in a residential facility for refugees describes the work as "permanent emergency mode". There are high levels of stress and the special needs of women who have experienced violence often overwhelm the staff. The project "Empowerment First!" is intended to help reduce this burden. Project manager Petra Keller explains how it will work.

What will happen in this project?

During three years, from 2018 to 2021, we will train specialists who are working with refugees. They learn about stress- and trauma-sensitive approaches in order to improve the ways they deal with the needs of women in the accommodation facilities and counselling points. In the end, the issue at hand is of course the protection and empowerment of refugee women and girls.

Can you give us some examples of what the specialists learn?

The trainings are intended to help raise the awareness of the staff of issues such as: What experiences of violence, and sexualised violence in particular, have women experienced before, during and after they flee? Why is it so important for women who have experienced violence to have a safe environment? What can we do in our facility to contribute to that?

medica mondiale is best known for its work in conflict and crisis areas around the world. Why did you decide to run a project here in Germany?

In 2015 we received an increasing number of enquiries. Counselling points and accommodation facilities had a large number of staff who had come from other professions and did not have much knowledge of the impacts of trauma and violence. So we became an important point of contact because of our expertise working with traumatised women and our experience in areas of war and conflict. At the same time, we saw how the situation here was getting more critical. The amount of money available for work with refugees was going down. Good initiatives such as the appointment of violence protection coordinators were being discontinued after a short time. But protection against violence and trauma-sensitivity are not short-term affairs! So we thought it was important to counter this short-term approach with a long-term project.

What are the particular problems faced by refugee women?

The lack of private space is an issue for all refugees in accommodation facilities, but is a particular problem for women. Doors frequently do not have locks and women report that they often do not dare to go to the toilet at night. Most women do not know which rights they have here in Germany. If a refugee woman experiences violence committed by her partner, she may not speak to anyone about this because she does not want to risk jeopardising the asylum procedure of her family.

How can the new project deal with these problems?

The trainings are designed to closely match real practical situations. The intention is to raise awareness among specialists of the multiple burdens faced by these women and give them long-term, workable opportunities to provide support. Can they refer women to other institutions? Which ones? How can they make their facility safer? Many participants report that when they walked through their facility after their training course with us they saw it in a totally new light.

Does this project also work directly with refugees?

We have established a peer-to-peer approach. Although refugee women are often only portrayed as needing protection, they also have an enormous potential. So we specifically train women who have their own experiences of being a refugee and have been living a little while longer in Germany. They can provide support to other women and it is beneficial for both sides. I remember one woman who, just a few years ago, had been a client at the youth welfare office. In one training she was able to advise a staff member of the youth welfare office, giving them very practical tips. These role changes often set free a whole new energy.

Author: Esther Wahlen, Press and Public Relatitions Officer at medica mondiale