Article originally published on 21/12/2017, by The European NGOs for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Population and Development < here >

Migrant women and girls and their access to SRHR in Europe

While thinking about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), Europe is praised for its leadership, however the inequities related to various SRHR aspects remain across different regions or certain groups. Read this inspiring interview with Anna Zobnina of the European Network of Migrant Women who shared with us the struggles faced by migrant women in the European continent and concrete recommendations related to these challenges.

One of the most striking outcomes of the 2017 EuroNGOs Conference was that we, as the European SRHR community, need to connect in a more organised way and create linkages within and outside our field to move forward a common agenda to safeguard reproductive and sexual justice for all. Furthermore, within our European context, there is still much to be done in terms of some specific SRHR issues and we won’t be able to properly identify and tackle them without the embracement of intersectional approach. In December, the EuroNGOs Secretariat attended in Brussels two events: a conference “Istanbul Convention: What policies transform commitments into reality?” organised by the European Women’s Lobby and an event “How Europe takes forward Refugee Compacts – A girl child perspective“ convened by CARE International, European Network of Migrant Women, ECRE and Melissa Network. Both events clearly showed that a bridge needs to be built between the humanitarian and development sectors (you can also learn more about this from our recent workshop’s report here) and that there is a strong need for more explicit inclusion of migration issue in our movement.

The European Network of Migrant Women is a migrant-women led platform of NGOs that works, in the spirit of intersectional feminism, for the rights of migrant women in Europe. We talked to Anna Zobnina, Strategy & Policy Coordinator, who illuminated the experiences of migrant and refugee women and girls in relation to exercising their sexual and reproductive rights in every day life.


What are the key challenges related to sexual and reproductive health and rights faced by migrant women in Europe?


The challenges in the area of SRHR migrant women face in Europe are numerous and complex. Starting from the access to the very basic services and facilities, including sex-segregated showers for females in the refugee camps, to access to the actual medical care or safe abortion, and finishing with sexuality and sexual relationship education. In principle, migrant women deal with pretty much the same issues as many European women do, but the problems they face are compounded by the situations of high risk and extreme vulnerability in which they are placed, which magnifies the difficulties they have to endure to satisfy their basic reproductive rights.  On top of this, there are multiple patriarchal factors that hide behind the notions of “culture” and/or “religion” further impeding migrant women’s SRHR. For example, when an Afghani girl is gang-raped by the male members of her community as a “punishment” for her falling in love with a Syrian boy, what we witness here is patriarchal control and extreme attack on women’s sexuality that takes on the form of “protecting community honour” and forbidding women to transgress ethnic boundaries.


What makes it even more complicated is that our civil society, to a large extend, is not prepared to deal with cases like this. For one thing, many in “humanitarian sector” lack feminist analysis of violence against women. There is not enough staff in the field who receive gender-awareness training to even identify cases like this. This creates an awkward silence around women’s sexual rights and violence perpetrated against them. On the other hand, when a German man tells his Ukrainian wife that now she is ‘too old’, therefore, he will start having sex with her daughter, and the only way she can prevent this is to report him to the police and risk losing her residency, we witness a situation of similar nature – a presumption of ownership of female sexuality by men – but it presents different cultural dynamics. Here the perpetrator is a white European male, who uses his position of power over a third country woman in a situation of legal dependency. So what is also important to remember when we discuss the challenges faced by migrant women in the area of SRHR is that this subject can never be viewed in isolation from the other areas of women’s fundamental rights. Such as the right to safety and life free from (male) violence, as well as our economic rights, access to labour, equal participation in all spheres of social life. They play an important part in establishing women’s sexual autonomy. For migrant women who, in many cases, are not allowed to exercise their economic rights because of legal limitations imposed through migrant status, this means that they become cut off a whole range of rights, including those that directly affects their sexual-reproductive status.


Your network is very active in raising awareness around the Istanbul Convention as a tool to improve the situation of migrant women in Europe. Could you explain what this concretely entails?


The Istanbul Convention is, practically, the only comprehensive instrument on Violence against Women and Girls, that exists at the European level. When we say “comprehensive” we mean that this convention views violence against women not as sporadic or incidental, but as structural and systemic – an outcome of a very long history of patriarchy in which men have dominated women in multiple spheres of life, from economic, to political and social. Comprehensive also means that the convention treats ALL members of female sex –  regardless of their ethnic origin, religion, migration status or age – in need of protection from violence directed at them because they are women. From the perspective of migrant, refugee and ethnic minority women, it is crucial that we finally have an instrument, that in its very preamble, commits to protecting our rights circumventing the limitations imposed on such rights through various other laws, such as those on migration or citizenship. Additionally, the convention has a number of articles that deal specifically with migrant and refugee women, asserting their right to life free from violence. It is not surprising that it is those articles that ask for member states to provide shelter and compensation to migrant women, are the ones that receive most scrutiny by the signing states, with a lot of them putting reservations on such articles. This, without a doubt, defeats the very spirit of the convention, instead following a deeply patriarchal logic that segregates the women into “good” ones and “bad” ones, some deserving protection, others – not.

This is why now that the European Union is in the process of ratification of Convention it is particularly important to raise awareness on this legal tool. Not all the countries in Europe are happy about the convention. Some, such as Poland, do not wish it to be ratified by the EU at all. They even came up with a funny name for this convention, calling it “gender ideology” and claiming if it is adopted it will undermine “traditional family values”. The convention, of course, has nothing to do with any “gender ideologies” – it is simply a tool to protect women from violence – but calling it this way creates a public fear and sets ideological precedent to protect “tradition” by which they mean, simply, “patriarchy”. Considering the massive backlash against both women and migrants in Europe that we are experiencing, what we try to do as a network is to take part in the work about the convention at both EU and national level. For example, we are a member in the Coalition of EU NGOs, led by the European Women’s Lobby, that promotes the EU ratification of the convention. At the same time, we try to support those of our members who work with national/local policy makers. This is why the most recent event we organised was in Denmark. Jointly with our Danish member Women Refugee Route we spoke about the importance of the convention for migrant and refugee women, on the day when GREVIO committee (a special CoE body that monitors implementation of the convention) published the report on Denmark – a report that criticises this otherwise very progressive state for many violations of women’s rights. (see details of the conference in Denmark here).


In December 2017, you co-organised in Brussels an event focused on the UN Refugee Global Compact and the EU migration policy. Why is a “girl child perspective” regarding these both so important?


This event was prompted by the experience of our members – migrant and refugee women organisations, grassroots service providers who work with refugee women and girls. There is a common perception among NGOs and policy makers alike, that “refugee children” are simply “children” and protecting them as such is what we need to do. This could not be farther removed from the actual reality of “children”, their needs and vulnerabilities directly affected along the axes of biological sex and the gender stereotypes constructed around these axes. That the experience of discrimination is different for boys and girls, is apparent for anyone working in the women’s rights sector; we all know that violence against women starts at a very early age, and is often perpetrated by our closest family and community members. In her life-cycle, before a female migrant/refugee even comes to the point when she is discriminated by governmental authorities or migration, she first may have to endure discrimination within her own family, because she is a girl. Many years of research on the rights of women have proven that practically all forms of VAW start before 18 y.o.: from Female Genital Mutilation to forced marriage, from the first sexual contact through rape to the cases of malnutrition when girls receive less food than boys. It is for this reason that Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action set out as one of its areas of critical concern, the situation of Girl Child. This was over 20 years ago, so, how come we still treat “children” as gender-neutral category and do not apply “gender perspective” when we analyse children’s vulnerability?

One of the reasons for this disparity is that there exists a gap between the laws on VAW and the laws on “minors”. The former were created taking into consideration the knowledge of patriarchal oppression all women experience; the latter – without such consideration. So the problem starts already at the policy/law framework. Then it trickles down to the field of implementation. Additionally, the social taboos around female sexuality, particularly of young females, are still very strong in Europe and they play a role in the lack of action to protect girl-children. In a way, it is more convenient for us to view girls – as well as boys – as asexual beings; such an approach removes the responsibility of having to deal with difficult questions. Such as: how do we address a situation when a Nigerian pregnant girl who wants an abortion is placed in the custody of a conservative Italian family who believe that she should carry the child even if she was raped and does not want this child?

What is also important to remember when we think of girls, is that such types of violence against women as sexual exploitation are largely normalised in our societies. For example, take the situation with the prostitution of minors in the refugee camps. Recently we hear a lot of reports on sexual exploitation of refugee boys. When such incidents are reported, very legitimately, they cause a public shock and condemnation. However, those working in the field know that refugee girls have been going missing in large numbers, trafficked, groomed, exploited in prostitution. But the situation of sexual abuse of women -and girls – is so commonplace, that we almost take it as an “inevitable experience” of female refugees, and, to a large extend, of all women. Because VAW is still a norm, the endemic violence against Girl Child remains invisible.

This includes a very grave reality that many girls who set out on a journey to reach Europe, simply, never make it here (see ENOMW report on sexual exploitation of Nigerian women here and our statement on femicide of Nigerian girls here).

Thank you Anna for sharing your insights!   

To learn more about the UN Global Compact on Refugees, read:

  • an article “Will the UN Global Compact on Refugees leave women and girls behind?” by Aleksandra Godziejewska, Head of Mission CARE Greece, and Howard Mollett, Senior Policy Advisory, CARE International UK
  • a set of recommendations “How Europe takes forward Refugee Compacts: Recommendations related to girls and women” by Care International, European Network of Migrant Women, Melissa Network and Women Refugee Route