We have learned from Bebe that the spirit of female refugees all over the world is unwavering. Every day more than 7.3 million women live and work, regardless of setbacks, to provide for their families. Women, who like all people, want nothing more than to have a better life for themselves and for those they love.
It is women like Bebe who would thrive, given the opportunity to do so. So why is it that although more than 48% of refugees are women, compared to their male counterparts, refugee women have not been engaged in the refugee resettlement process in countries like Canada? It was not until the last decade that refugee women and children even began to be considered refugees in their own right, as opposed to only part of a “family package.” Gender considerations, including the possibility that women might be especially at risk, are relatively new.
In March 1993, Canada became the first country in the world to introduce a comprehensive set of guidelines on the inclusion of gender as a “social group” under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Guidelines, which became effective November 1996, allow for an interpretation of the refugee definition in a way that incorporates gender-related claims of refugee women and stand today as an example for other countries addressing this issue.
While this is an immense accomplishment for our nation, it is not the end of the story for female refugees like Bebe who continue to struggle in many areas of the world. Many barriers persist which make it difficult for female refugees to resettle in safe countries – countries like Canada. Restricted access to the funds needed to complete the refugee application process, limited mobility especially where female refugees are also mothers accounting for their children, minimal education and language skills, as well as an inability to recount traumatic experiences for religious, cultural, or personal reasons in an interview setting are all factors which make it difficult for female refugees to become involved in the refugee determination process.
The vast majority of those who flee do not choose to willingly live under burlap tents or behind barbed-wire fences, unless they are fleeing for their safety. Women who flee do so to escape bombardments, inevitable starvation, and widespread oppression. We cannot allow barriers in the Canadian refugee system to deny many women and young girls the chance of living a life free of conflict and fear.