Magnifying Inequality for Forcibly Displaced Women: A Call for Action Commentary
ILO Prospects Program
Magnifying Inequality for Forcibly Displaced Women: A Call for Action

After three days of Generation Equality Forum meetings in Paris (hosted by the French Government from 30 June to 2 July), the international community launched a Global Acceleration Plan (GAP) for gender equality, driven by six Action Coalitions, the Compact on Women, Peace and Security, and Humanitarian Action. The GAP aims to accelerate gender equality in the next five years and to face the growing risks to women’s rights caused by COVID-19.  While we welcome the renewal of commitments to gender equality and the financial pledges, we can only cautiously welcome the outcomes, as the GAP ought to represent—boldly—women and girls living in humanitarian settings across all areas of their lives. This is especially timely when such risks are magnified in settings that are affected by forced displacement as noted in UNHCR’s June annual Global Trends report. The world is facing the largest crisis in forced displacement since the end of the second world war. Despite the pandemic, the number of people fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights violations in 2020 rose to nearly 82.4 million people, according to UNHCR’s Global Trends report. This is a further four percent increase on top of the already record-high 79.5 million at the end of 2019. Globally, women and girls now account for more than half of all forcibly displaced people, comprising refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare many of the deep gender inequalities that affect the displacement experience for women and girls, creating new risks and exacerbating existing constraints. UNHCR raised an alarm to warn of the catastrophic consequences of COVID-19 for refugee and displaced women and girls, and this is a prompt for the international policy response to address specific protection needs, such as gender-based violence, and the abuse or exploitation of women and children.

The Gender Dimensions of Forced Displacement

Vulnerabilities linked to forced displacement often have an important gender dimension—men and women experience forced displacement disproportionately. Displaced populations are represented by larger shares of women and children and atypical family structures, including a high prevalence of female-headed households among refugee populations.

Evidence shows that conflict and displacement disproportionately affect women and men. Therefore, when addressing development issues among displaced people by designing and implementing interventions, it is crucial to identify the potentially different needs and priorities of men and women. One key principle to guide this work, as the UNHCR’s latest Global Trends Report rightly recommends, is to continuously ensure female participation in decision making spaces so as to strengthen their voice and agency. Another recommended key principle is to engage men and boys in activities that are aimed at expanding women’s roles in society in an effort to warrant wide societal buy-in to any changes in gendered roles and responsibilities.

Gender-Specific Vulnerabilities Facing Women in Hosting Environments

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated some of the impacts of situational and structural constraints on women and girls. By one estimate, half a million more girls are now at risk of child marriage due to economic stresses.

The COVID-19 crisis is interacting with situational constraints to heighten risks for women and girls in situations of forced displacement. These situational constraints relate to the particular conditions of displacement. These conditions include, first, overcrowded living conditions and a lack of critical basic resources and services, such as access to food, and security concerns that raise the risk of gender-based violence. As resources are diverted toward responding to the pandemic, women and girls are also facing constraints in accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Evidence from previous pandemics suggests that increases in unintended pregnancy, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases could result.

At the structural level, women face constraints that affect their ability to access services and earn a livelihood, which should be front and center in the policy response of host countries and the international community. Women’s access to services is further hampered by their overall limited ability to exercise voice and agency.  These limitations include gender-biases in regulatory requirements for residency or identity documents, restrictive labor market policies and/or gender-segregated labor markets that limit the sectors, professions or even hours women can work, social norms that influence the economic and social trajectories women can pursue, and exclusive financial systems that limit access to credit or savings.

Moving Forward- Responding to Gender and Displacement Needs

In light of these constraints and limitations, the international community could prioritize the following in its policy dialogue and support for the displaced, in the context of hosting environments:

  • Enhance protections and responses to GBV: Levels of GBV generally tend to be higher in displaced settings; with the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions in mobility, many countries are reporting a further rise in GBV incidence. It is critical to ensure protections are in place and that services for GBV survivors remain available, especially to facilitate a holistic response to violence survivors’ needs. Such needs may include protection measures, physical health and psycho-social services, and legal services.
  • Increase refugee women’s access to quality sexual and reproductive health services, with an aim to decrease maternal mortality rates among the displaced.
  • Enhance access to economic opportunities. Build transition-proof and demand-driven soft and hard skills (vocational, financial literacy, etc.) for female refugees to increase take-up of productive economic opportunities. Partner with the private sector to link demand and supply, and to incentivize employers to provide displaced populations with access to jobs, with a particular focus on women.
  • Improve women’s overall access to safe and accessible transport and to affordable, quality childcare, in order to increase labor participation, and make sure these services extend to forcibly displaced populations.
  • Promote flexible financial mechanisms to channel resources to women: The global economic crisis related to COVID-19 has increased economic pressure on women and girls who have been displaced. Flexible instruments like digital banking and mobile money can help channel resources directly to displaced women where they can have the greatest effect.


Today more than ever, with the rising numbers of the forcibly displaced, there is an urgent need for the international community policy response to prioritize support  for displaced women and girls, and to target the constraints they face in order to strengthen gender equality. This will promote an environment in which forcibly displaced women and girls do not experience specific gender-related barriers in accessing services and economic opportunities. There is an equal need to view intersectionality with a gendered lens when addressing displaced women’s needs. This can be accomplished by taking an approach that is anchored strictly in poverty and vulnerability. Such an approach recognizes the complex realities of decades of forced displacement and intersectional vulnerability within specific groups of women; hence, requiring more nuanced responses in order to help countries emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and lay the foundations for more inclusive, resilient, peaceful, and prosperous societies.


Dr. Leila Hanafi is a Moroccan-American lawyer, senior staff at the World Bank Group, and adjunct law professor at George Washington University Law School. Thokozani Kadzamira is a Malawian senior gender and energy specialist with the World Bank Group and Chief Executive Officer of the Malawi Washington Foundation.


Suggested citation: Dr. Leila Hanafi and Thokozani Kadzamira, Magnifying Inequality for Forcibly Displaced Women: A Call for Action, JURIST – Professional Commentary, July 13, 2021,

This article was prepared for publication by Heidi Johnson, JURIST Associate Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at

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