Internal displacement: The feminisation of a world-wide crisis

From guiding principles to humanitarian laws, women continue to be impacted by internal displacement in the Americas.

An internally displaced woman carrying a child walks by two men sitting on the ground in the Altos de la Florida neigbourhood of Bogota
The only countries with more internally displaced people than Colombia are Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and the DRC [Reuters]

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The “Guiding Principles” are not legally binding but serve as an instrument that states, grassroots organisations and individuals use to inform the human rights that internally displaced people are entitled to, as well as the humanitarian laws that are relevant from legally binding conventions that their states have signed and ratified.

Internally displaced persons are defined as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border.” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction, paragraph 2). 

According to the latest global study done by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2011, there is an estimated 26.4 million people that are internally displaced. However, what this number does not reveal is the extent to which women and children are the overwhelming victims of internal displacement. Why? It is estimated that about 80 percent of displaced populations consist of women and children. Natural disasters and armed conflict usually occur in rural, low income, institutionally abandoned and hard to reach communities. These communities very often are comprised of women that work in a local and informal economy, and are single head of households (due to several factors, including forced disappearances, homicides, and/or male migration to other communities or countries for economic and/or safety reasons). For these and other reasons, internal displacement continues to disproportionately result in women becoming displaced, followed by gender-based violence that more than usually occurs in times of displacement. 

While it has been documented that anyone who is displaced can experience trafficking, kidnapping, homicides, detentions, forced recruitment and even slavery, women are subjected to massive gender-specific violations in the form of sexual violence such as rape, forced impregnation, forced abortions, trafficking and forced prostitution. The disproportionate numbers of women who are internally displaced and the lack of an institutional mechanism in place to provide protection to the special needs of women who become displaced have feminised this phenomenon in unique ways. This is especially true for the Americas, where displacement and its gender component intersect with race and ethnicity.

Women and internal displacement in the Americas

Internal displacement in the context of the American continent is something that has not gotten the attention that it demands, either from the mainstream or progressive independent media at the global and regional level. But internal displacement is a crisis that impacts significant numbers of people in the Americas and disproportionately affects Afro-descendant women because of several socioeconomic and political factors, including the geographical location of where natural disasters and armed conflict occur. This results in Afro descendant women being exposed to two distinct forms of historical discrimination – race and gender – which make them doubly vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by governmental institutions, and armed groups in all facets of internal displacement – from evacuation, relocation and the security of their right to return.

Internal displacement continues to disproportionately result in women becoming displaced, followed by gender-based violence that more than usually occurs in times of displacement.

For example, when we look at internal displacement in the Americas, we include the United States, where it is estimated that the number of African-Americans who were displaced by the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are as high as 1-1.5 million. A disproportionate number of those displaced were women and children. Despite the clear applicability of the Guiding Principles to Katrina, the principles were ignored by the US government. Instead, federal legislation (Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act – Stafford Act) was enacted to deal with the crisis. Yet many provisions of the Stafford Act run counter to the guiding principles. Parallel to that, the number of internally displaced people that remain displaced over time is unknown because the US government does not track or monitor people who’ve been displaced longer than 18 months.

As of December 2012, in Haiti alone, over 357,000 people [PDF] remain in camps or camp-like situations due to the multiple hurricane devastations in the country. With the economic, social and political crisis that Haiti has been facing since the earthquake in 2010, women and girls that have been displaced into camps have been literally left to fend for their own security, which has led to an increase of gender-based crimes that a fragmented judicial system simply does not deal with effectively.

In Colombia, race, armed conflict and flawed politics has caused a mass internal displacement crisis reaching numbers higher than five million [PDF]. Colombia has the fifth largest number of internally displaced people (preceded by Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo). The Rapporteur on the rights of women from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in a visit in 2005, cites in her country visit report testimony submitted to her:

We women have been trampled over in our territory and anywhere by the different groups, the legal and illegal armed groups, who kidnap us, kill, rape and humiliate us… leaving as a consequence of these actions the deterioration of the social fabric around us. Therefore, there is no doubt that the armed conflict has harmed black women’s feelings, their ancestral legitimacy, their creativity to form and generate life, their cultural identity and their love for their territory.

Where we are today

Despite the fact that several governments have recognised the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, only 16 states in the world have created laws, policies, frameworks and protocols specifically around internal displacement into their legislation. In the Americas, only Colombia and Peru have done so, but despite that, general knowledge, implementation and monitoring of these policies are very sketchy, and do not include explicit protections for women and girls in these situations. 

Lack of service provision, institutional racism and acts of violence at any level that occurs at the hands of natural or human-made disasters, are also a reflection of structural and institutional breakdowns in states governments. More than often these institutions do not prioritise nor take the well-being and the security of women seriously as they face the vulnerabilities described above.

Janvieve Williams Comrie, is the current Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center. Her previous professional experience include the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Central America Regional Office and the US Human Rights Network in the United States, where she worked directly on race and racial discrimination and human rights. 

Follow her on Twitter: @jwpanama