Displaced women at risk of homelessness – how to support displaced women’s rights

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Laura Cunial , Kirstie Farmer

Repressive social norms experienced by women from their communities and families can cause displacement. On International Women’s Day our guest bloggers Laura Cunial, Information Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) Adviser and Kirstie Farmer, Research and Policy Adviser (ICLA) for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) follow on from their previous blog post to discuss the role of internally displaced women as central agents of their long term recovery from displacement and how women can be supported to claim their rights.

The most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, has shown how homelessness has become a global human rights crisis. She highlights the risks faced by 59.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced by armed conflicts,[1] and over 19.3 million newly displaced due to disasters worldwide.

Conflicts and disasters are a cause of homelessness. Displaced persons, by definition, have to abandon their homes. Many of them have been forced to leave because of targeted discrimination. NRC’s research shows that this is compounded by the repressive social norms women experience within their families and communities. Those who face discrimination because of their ethnicity, place of origin and gender, are more likely to become homeless and, once homeless, are exposed to more serious protection risks.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are therefore part of the millions worldwide who have lost their homes and are subject to discrimination, stigmatization and social exclusion. NRC’s experience of supporting displaced persons shows that they face particular obstacles in housing during displacement. First there is the problem of finding a place to stay; if this is temporary and insecure housing they risk forced evictions and other human rights abuses. In post-conflict environments IDPs may struggle to assert their rights to restitution or compensation for their housing, land and property when they return.

Women at a greater risk of becoming homeless

NRC’s Information Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) programmes in 20 conflict-affected countries worldwide have found that displaced women are at a particular risk of losing their homes and becoming homeless.

Demographic changes in conflict result in increased number of widows and women-headed households among IDP populations. At a time when displaced women’s survival, and that of their families, depends on it, they find themselves in situations of insecure tenure or facing eviction. When a woman is evicted or loses her home and ends up having to live with relatives or host families, she is less likely to be considered homeless because she may not be ‘sleeping on the streets’. Nevertheless she can be in a precarious housing situation, having to compromise her safety, and forced to adopt risky coping mechanisms.

Violence against women

Conflict and displacement can also result in socio-economic ruptures within the family; the loss of work and income, as well as changes in social roles and status, which can result in an increase in family violence (more information here). NRC has found that displaced women may be forced to make a decision to stay in a violent and abusive relationship when the rent or ownership of the house is controlled by the abuser. The ability to access safe and affordable housing are two of the most pressing concerns for women to escape violence and remove herself and her children from an abusive situation. Therefore promoting displaced women’s security of tenure is a central objective of NRC’s legal assistance programmes in many countries.

How to support displaced women’s rights?

The Special Rapporteur on the right to housing has outlined the importance of recognising those who are homeless as rights holders who are resilient in the struggle for survival and dignity. On International Women’s day we can promote the recognition of IDP women as central agents of their long term recovery from displacement. To do this, we should support IDP women to claim and uphold their rights, including their right to adequate housing.

NRC recommends that:

  • Humanitarian actors should design and implement legal assistance programmes to support displaced women to address the discrimination and barriers they face in accessing housing during displacement and in post-conflict situations.

  • International organisations should refrain from documenting and registering humanitarian assistance, such as shelter, only in the name of male heads of household. The registration of tenure rights in joint or multiple names, including of women, should be the standard procedure (more information here).

About the Norwegian Refugee Council

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is an independent, international, humanitarian non-governmental organisation, which provides assistance and protection as well as contributing to durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. NRC provides information, counselling and legal assistance (ICLA) related to housing, land and property (HLP) rights in 20 countries afflicted by conflict or recovering from it. NRC also delivers emergency and transitional shelter assistance in these countries.

In 2011, NRC embarked on a five-year initiative aiming to increase displaced women’s access to HLP rights through improved programming and advocacy. Studies involving assessments of NRC’s legal cases and commissioned country research have been conducted in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine (Gaza), South Sudan and with Colombian refugees in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.

[1] UNHCR 2015; International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Global Overview 2015