United against GBV during the 16 days of activism – Advocating for refugee women’s rights.

Inês Horta/ December 11, 2023/

Inês Horta


To mark the “16 days of activism against Gender-Based Violence” (GBV) campaign , led by civil society organisations and endorsed by the United Nations (UN), this blogpost aims to highlight the challenges and problems that women experience in the various stages of the refuge cycle and how the international community, particularly the EU, tackles this issue.


Forced migration, refugees, gender, Gender-based Violence, EU.


Considering the goal of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, an international initiative started in 1991 by the Centre for Woman’s Global Leadership and subsequently backed by the UN through the initiation of ““UNiTE campaign to End Violence against Women”, to raise awareness and deploy action against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), it becomes pertinent to examine this specific violence within the context of migration. The 21st century has witnessed a substantial surge in forced migratory movements, particularly notable since 2015. This period has introduced a myriad of challenges for refugees (as they are defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention),[1] amplified by the emergence of restrictive migration and asylum policies within Europe, such as the 2016 EU-Turkey statement.[2] These have shifted focus towards border security, consequently impeding the fair acceptance and equitable distribution of individuals in need among EU member states.

Although all individuals endure hardships throughout the process of refugeehood, it is essential to recognise the distinct risks and vulnerabilities faced by marginalised groups. Therefore, this blogpost goal is to elucidate their experiences, particularly of women, who statistically emerge as the most adversely affected by GBV across all stages of the refugee cycle.[3]

1. What do the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” stand for?

The “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” campaign stands as a significant annual international movement led by civil society actors. It spans from November 25th, recognised as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to December 10th, commemorating Human Rights Day. This campaign aims to raise awareness and to combat violence against women and girls (VAWG) while also advocating for gender equality. Its origins trace back to 1991, initiated by the Centre for Woman’s Global Leadership. From 2008, the United Nations has provided its support by launching the “UNiTE campaign to End Violence against Women”.[4]

Each year, the UNiTE campaign adopts a specific theme, and in 2023 the focus lies on “UNiTE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”, with the objective of initiating dialogues among stakeholders, encouraging their shared commitment to actions directed at ending such violence. Particularly, the emphasis is on governments worldwide and their investment in preventing GBV.[5]

2. Understanding GBV within the context of forced migrations

Organisations and academic researchers working on gender and migration tend to approach gender-based violence in a broad way, acknowledging it as an umbrella term encompassing various and distinct forms of violence. Jane Freedman defines GBV as including “all forms of violence—physical, sexual, psychological, economic—directed against a person because of that person’s sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity”.[6] It encompasses not only direct acts of violence but also the deprivation of resources and access to essential services, fostering an environment of inequality and harm.[7]

This form of violence extends across gender identities, affecting individuals irrespective of their gender spectrum, including women, girls, men, boys, non-binary persons, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people or anyone challenging traditional gender norms.[8]

Nevertheless, despite its varied impact, due to the enduring prevalence of the patriarchy intersected[9] with other systems of oppression,[10] GBV affects women disproportionately. This can be explained by the existence of deeply ingrained social and structural norms that contribute to imbalanced power dynamics.[11] Cultural and social norms play a pivotal role in socializing males to embody traits such as aggression, power, emotional reserve, and control, thereby casting them in dominant roles. Likewise, societal and cultural expectations put women in roles characterized by passivity, nurturance, submissiveness and emotional sensitivity, further reinforcing the perception of weakness, being powerless and dependent on men.[12]

Additionally, it is acknowledged that within the context of forced migration, GBV transcends conflicts, permeating the entire migration trajectory, including cases of GBV experienced and reported within host EU member states, such as in reception and/or detention facilities.[13] In this sense, it is imperative to outline the various types of GBV across the distinct phases of the refugee cycle, which can be categorised into five key stages:[14]

According to the UNHCR,[15] the pre-flight/conflict phase is usually marked by reported incidents of abuse by individuals in positions of authority, instances of sexual harassment, rape, abduction by armed political entities, mass rape, and forced pregnancies. For instance, amidst the Ugandan civil war, in 1987 to 2006, around 20 000 children were abducted. The girls were forced into marriages with the Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers. These forced marriages led to further sexual violence, such as marital, rape and coerced impregnation.[16]

During the flight phase, refugees face multiple threats such as sexual assault by criminal groups and/or border authorities, human trafficking, and exploitation by those involved in the trade of enslaved individuals. In a study conducted by UN Women in 2021, findings disclosed that around 90% of women and girls undertaking the journey along the Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy had experienced rape.[17] Moreover, women refugees, especially those utilizing irregular migration channels, were more at risk of being subject to human trafficking.[18]

In the destination country, also called ‘host country’, there have been reports of sexual attacks, coercion, extortion, child sexual abuse in cases of separation due to social services, domestic violence, sexual assaults within transit facilities, sexual exploitation of individuals seeking legal asylum status or assistance, and resurgence of harmful traditional practices[19]. There have also been reports that in refugee camps, such as the Moria Refugee Camp on Lesbos Island, Greece, women and girls faced unsafe conditions characterized by overcrowding, inadequate accommodations, and unhygienic facilities, notably the latrines lacking security measures.[20] The scarcity of resources further amplified the severity of these challenges. Observers within the camp disclosed a notable increase in cases of sexual assault.[21]

In cases of returning to the country of origin, women may also experience GBV.[22] For instance, there are reports of sexual abuse of women, sexual exploitation by individuals in positions of power, sexual attacks, rapes perpetrated by bandits or border guards, and coerced or forced repatriation.[23]

Furthermore, during the reintegration in the country of origin or nationality, the final stage of the refugee cycle,[24] there are reports of refugee women experiencing sexual abuse as a revenge tactic, sexual extortion aimed at regularizing one’s legal status, exclusion from participation in decision-making processes, issues related to documentation, and the right to reclaim or possess property.[25][26]

3. Policies and Legal Frameworks in place: from historically invisible to legally protected

GBV has persistently affected refugee women. The international community initially established a framework for the general international protection of refugees through the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, alongside subsequent regional legal instruments like the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee problems in Africa (1969) and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees,[27] but these approaches were notably “gender-neutral”, neglecting the specific vulnerabilities faced by women. The shift came in the 1980s, influenced by activism between 1975 and 1985 and the dedicated focus on women by the UN during that decade.[28]

Subsequent initiatives were then undertaken, including the International Rescue Committee project in Tanzania (1997-999), which aimed to study and propose solutions on addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in refugee camps.[29] The Malika project (2000-2003) by the Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati, developed a best practice guide for individuals who work with refugees who have experienced SGBV.[30] NGOs like Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children began monitoring the situation of refugee populations, especially women and children, through field investigations related to instances of GBV.[31]

Within the UN system, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, in 2000, has played a significant role. In its point 20 it promotes gender equality and in point 25 paragraph 4, it underscores the commitment to combating all forms of violence against women.[32] This aligns with the principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted in 1979 and is considered the Bill for women’s human rights.[33]

Concerning the EU, whose Member States receive a significant number of refugees, namely Germany,[34] the Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFREU) explicitly prohibits sex-based discriminations, and advocates gender equality across all domains, in its articles 21(1) and 23. The right to asylum is affirmed in article 18, in line with 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol on refugees.[35]

In 1999, the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) was established, and within its legislative instruments,[36] there appears to be a recognition of GBV, particularly after the directives have been reformed. For instance, the Recast Qualification Directive,[37] outlining the grounds for international protection, emphasizes assessing asylum claims with consideration for the specific vulnerabilities of victims of human trafficking, rape, and other sexual violence, according to article 20(3)(4). It also mandates adequate healthcare in article 30(2).[38] The Revised Asylum Procedures Directive,[39]which establishes common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection, emphasizes the need for special procedural safeguards for applicants due to their age, gender, and sexual identity (Recital 29). It also stresses substantive equality between male and female applicants (Recital 32).[40] The Reception Conditions Directive,[41] which ensures that common standards of reception for asylum seekers across the EU are set, mandates, in its article 18(4), measures to prevent sexual violence within accommodation facilities, and following article 21, it establishes a fundamental principle, stating that EU member states are required to consider the particular circumstances of individuals who have experienced rape or other forms of psychological, physical, or sexual violence, when implementing all aspects covered by the directive.[42]

Likewise, within the Council of Europe system, the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was adopted in 2011. This Convention defines and criminalises VAW, promotes specific measures regarding migration and asylum in its chapter VII.[43]

However, all of these have had a slow impact on improving survivors’ access to protection,  who continue to face legal and practical barriers. Despite guidelines in place or in development[44] in almost half of the EU member states, with the purpose to identify and provide support to GBV survivors, they are not consistently effective. Most EU member states lack systematic staff training to identify and assist survivors. In nine reviewed member states,[45] measures to protect vulnerable migrant women, such as separate accommodations, and access to specialised shelters or services, lack comprehensive and coordinated procedures. Disclosing incidents of GBV is hindered by an understandable reluctance of reporting to reception centre authorities or the police, and countries often lack data.[46] According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), some Member States also have inadequate access to legal support and interpretation services, compounding the challenges for those arriving at these centres with limited or no knowledge of the language of the host country.[47]

In this context, preventing and raising awareness of GBV is crucial. This involves ensuring separate accommodation and sanitary facilities in reception centres, inter-agency coordination, training border authorities, staff and volunteers (since the perpetration of violence itself might involve authorities or NGOs staff).[48] Equally important is providing information to survivors on what GBV is, what it encompasses, how to report it, and where to seek help.[49]


Throughout the blogpost, it has been emphasized that there is a need to adopt and implement preventive measures, to guarantee the support of survivors of GBV, and raise awareness on GBV, in particular VAW. While the 16 days of activism serve as catalyst, the ongoing journey towards a safer, more equitable asylum experience for women requires persistent, collaborative efforts. The collective responsibility to advocate for change transcends borders and requires continuous commitment to address the complex realities faced by refugee women.

How to cite this blog post:

Horta, Inês, “United against GBV during the 16 days of activism – advocating for refugee women’s rights”. NOVA Refugee Clinic Blog, November/December 2023, available at: https://novarefugeelegalclinic.novalaw.unl.pt/?blog_post=united-against-gbv-during-the-16-days-of-activism-advocating-for-refugee-womens-rights

[1] See Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (adopted 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954) 189 UNTS 137 (Refugee Convention), Art 1(2)

[2] J. Freedman and N. Sahraoui and E. Tastsoglou, Gender-Based Violence in Migration: Interdisciplinary, Feminist and Intersectional Approaches. (Paris: Palgrave Macmillan Cham, 2022), 7.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’ (UN Women)  <https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/unite/16-days-of-activism> accessed 10 November 2023.

[5] ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence 25 November – 10 December 2023 – Concept Note’ (United Nations Secretary-General) <https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/202309/UNiTE_16%20Days_2023_Concept%20Note%20%28English%29.pdf> accessed 10 November 2023.

[6] Freedman (n 3). 

[7] ‘Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) prevention and response (UNCHR) <https://emergency.unhcr.org/protection/protection-mechanisms/sexual-and-gender-based-violence-sgbv-prevention-and-response> accessed 10 November, 2023.

[8] ‘Definitions of gender-based violence’ (ITCILO) <https://gbv.itcilo.org/index.php/information_sheet/show/id/1.html> accessed 10 November, 2023.

[9] Evelyn M. Simien, ‘Doing Intersectionality Research: From Conceptual Issues to Practical Examples’, (2007) 3 (2)  Politics and Gender 265 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X07000086> accessed 11 November 2023.

[10] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” (1991) Stanford Law Review 1242 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1229039.pdf?refreqid=fastly-default%3A5c2bf09e516a0c7768ff957e5003ce7e&ab_segments=&origin=&initiator=&acceptTC=1> accessed 10 November 2023.

[11] ‘What is gender-based violence – and how do we prevent it?’ (IRC) <https://www.rescue.org/article/what-gender-based-violence-and-how-do-we-prevent-it> accessed 17 November, 2023.

[12] ‘Causes and Effects of Gender-Based Violence’ (Human Rights Library)  <https://www3.paho.org/english/HDP/HDW/gph4english.pdf> accessed 18th November 2023.

[13] ‘Thematic focus: Gender-based violence (FRA) <https://fra.europa.eu/en/content/thematic-focus-gender-based-violence> accessed 10thNovember 2023.

[14] It is important to note that not every refugee will go through every phase of the refugee cycle.

[15] ‘Sexual and gender-based violence against refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons: guidelines for prevention and response” (UNHCR) <https://www.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/legacy-pdf/3f696bcc4.pdf> accessed 10 November 2023.

[16] Caitlin Dykes, ‘Fighting Forced Marriage and Pregnancy in Northern Uganda’, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (April 26 2017) <https://www.hart-uk.org/blog/fighting-forced-marriage-pregnancy-northern-uganda/> accessed 10 November 2023.

[17] ‘From evidence to action: Tackling gender-based violence against migrant women and girls’ (UN Women <https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2021/Policy-brief-From-evidence-to-action-Tackling-GBV-against-migrant-women-and-girls-en.pdf> accessed 10 November 2023.

[18] Ibid.

[19] UNHCR (n 15).

[20] Allison Paill, ‘The Influence of Gender in Refugee Camp Safety: A Case Study of Moria and Kara Tepe in Lesvos, Greece’ (2021) 1 Gendered perspectives on International Development 9-10, https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/26/article/838061/pdf, accessed 16 November 2023.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Silvia Zerbetto, ‘Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the determination of Refugee Status: even the legal obstacle for women (Master’s thesis, Tilburg University 2011), 8.

[23] UNHCR (n 25)

[24] Ibid.

[25] As GBV also englobes the “denial of resources or access to services” – UNHCR (n 7)

[26] UNHCR (n 19)

[27] Tatiana Morais, ‘A violência sexual e de género nos campos de população refugiada: Enquadramento e Análise Legal’ (Observatório das Migrações, Thesis Collection, n 52, 2020), 20 – 23, ebook accessed 10th November 2023, https://www.om.acm.gov.pt/documents/58428/179891/Tese+52.pdf/5bca6181-eec8-40c1-8041-ed8beed9eaa0 .

[28] Ibid, 35 – 36.

[29] Additionally, it pioneered the development of a drop-in centre, which became a trailblazer in providing support and services to survivors.

[30] Sexual violence is categorised as subset of GBV. Entities like the UNHCR deliberately use the term SGBV with the intention to emphasise the imperative for protective measures that address both the criminal nature and the destabilizing impact of sexual violence on survivors and their families. See “Terminology and definitions”, UN Women, last revised 2nd July, 2013,  accessed 10th Novemberhttps://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/1474-terminology-and-definitions.html.

[31] Tatiana Morais, ‘A violência sexual e de género nos campos de população refugiada: Enquadramento e Análise Legal’ in Thesis Collection, (Observatório das Migrações 2020) 52, 35 – 36, <https://www.om.acm.gov.pt/documents/58428/179891/Tese+52.pdf/5bca6181-eec8-40c1-8041-ed8beed9eaa0> accessed 10 November 2023.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See ‘CEDAW’ (Plataforma para os Direitos da Mulheres) <https://plataformamulheres.org.pt/projectos/cedaw/>  accessed 12 November 2023 

[34] ‘Ranking of the largest refugee-hosting countries as of 2022’ (Statista) <https://www.statista.com/statistics/263423/major-refugee-hosting-countries-worldwide/>  accessed 12 November, 2023.

[35] See Charter of Fundamental Rights of The European Union [2012] OJ 1 326/393.

[36] ‘Common European Asylum System’ (European Commission) <https://home-affairs.ec.europa.eu/policies/migration-and-asylum/common-european-asylum-system_en> accessed 12 November, 2023,. 

[37] Directive 2011/95/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 on standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection, for a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, and for the content of the protection granted (recast) [2011] OJ L 337.

[38] Rosamund Shreves, ‘Gender aspects of migration and asylum in the EU: An overview’ (European Parliament) 8-9 <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EPRS_BRI(2016)579072> accessed 10th November 2023.

[39] Directive 2013/32/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection (recast) [2013] OJ L 180.

[40] Shreeves (n 39).

[41] Directive 2013/33/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection (recast) [2013] OJ L 180.

[42] FRA (n 13).

[43] Precisely, articles 60 and 61 focus on safeguarding refugee women from violence and ensuring the application of the principle of non-refoulement for individuals experiencing GBV. See: Consolidated Version of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence [2011] <https://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/-/the-european-union-deposited-the-instrument-of-approval-of-the-istanbul-convention-> accessed 10th November 2023. 

[44] On March 8th, 2022, the European Commission proposed a directive to address and criminalise VAW (and domestic violence), aiming to establish a minimum level of protection through the EU. Article 35 of this proposal mandates EU member states to provide targeted support to victims at elevated risk, including women seeking international protection and those escaping armed conflict. See: ‘EU measures to end violence against women’ (European Council) <https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-measures-end-violence-against-women/#directive> accessed 18 November 2023.

[45] FRA (n 43).

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Jenny Phillimore and others, ‘“We are Forgotten”: Forced Migration, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and Coronavirus Disease-2019’ (2022) 28(9), Violence Against Women 2207 <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/10778012211030943> accessed 18 November 2023.

[49] FRA (n 48).

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