Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: Gender, Religion, and Displacement

By: Lena Musoka

September 11, 2023

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According to the UNHCR, in 2022, forced displacement of humans reached the highest numbers seen in decades. As of data from May 2023, over 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide because of conflicts, persecution, and human rights violations. An unsettling aspect of this crisis is the growing prevalence of displaced women and children, highlighting the interplay between gender and displacement. The World Bank stated that “development policies and programs are often designed without taking these gendered factors and differences into account,” which ultimately results in poor monitoring and implementation of policies that recognize the individualized or exacerbated impacts of displacement that women experience.

Displaced women traverse a complex landscape of challenges. From the initial trauma of conflict to the uncertainty of seeking refuge in foreign lands, their experiences are multifaceted. The World Bank’s Gender Dimensions of Forced Displacement (GDFD) research program has demonstrated that on multiple fronts—including access to employment, financial inclusion, and gender-based violence (GBV)—women’s experiences are far worse. For example, women are at a particularly higher risk of various forms of abuse during times of conflict and displacement. However, the intricacies run deeper, intertwining with cultural norms, religious beliefs, and societal expectations.

Religion, in particular, can either provide a source of resilience or exacerbate gender-based vulnerabilities, as migrants often continue to practice their religion when forcibly displaced. The relationship between gender, religion, and displacement has become even more nuanced, as research shows that religion can be used as a coping mechanism for women who experience GBV in a displacement context. Yet, religion can also be misused to perpetrate gender-based violence or intimate partner violence and discrimination, posing additional risks for displaced women.

Emerging intersectional viewpoints underscore the need to comprehend the challenges faced by displaced women and point to the need for a more sensitive approach that acknowledges the complex interplay of gender, religion, and other identities to foster effective and equitable responses to the forced displacement for marginalized groups such as women.

Despite the growing recognition of gender disparities in displacement, international policies have frequently overlooked or inadequately addressed this gendered aspect. This has resulted in a skewed perspective that fails to adequately account for the unique challenges that displaced women face. Aspects of gender-specific persecution and violence are sometimes marginalized within broader policies and responses. Consequently, displaced women may not receive the focused attention and support they require to navigate their circumstances successfully.

The interaction between gender and displacement remains a critical yet under-explored realm. Delving into this intersection is pivotal to fully grasp and address the unique challenges faced by displaced women.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges. Contributors in this series weigh in on the gendered dimensions of forced migration and internal displacement.

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