Last week the Refugee Council hosted a packed out conference to launch two reports from its three-year Vulnerable Women’s Project (VWP). I attended the conference to help record the day’s proceedings as well as to soak in the wealth of new evidence of rape and sexual violence among refugee women in the UK contained in the reports.
In her keynote address, the Refugee Council’s Chief Executive, Donna Covey, laid bare the plight of women who have fled to the UK from some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. Because of the precarious existence that some refugee women lead in the UK after their asylum claims are refused, they are sucked back into the vortex of sexual violence and exploitation that caused them to leave their home countries.
I was particularly staggered by the high levels of horrific abuses reported by refugee women attending the Refugee Council’s VWP. For instance, over three quarters of all the women assisted by the project since December 2006 have been raped, with an equal number reporting trauma-related psychological distress.
The great majority of women seen by the Refugee Council have escaped from long-running civil wars in Sri Lanka, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the words of one senior UN military official based in Eastern DRC, nothing can be more dangerous than being a woman in a war zone.
As part of the conference’s objective to share good practice with those working with refugee women affected by rape and sexual violence, Andy Keefe, the Specialist Support Services manager at the Refugee Council, briefed delegates on his team’s therapeutic casework model.
Essentially, the model engages clients’ issues on practical, emotional and symbolic levels. As I later found out whilst chatting to some of the delegates in the refreshments room, the model’s multi-pronged approach to problem-solving received wide appreciation.
“I really like the bringing together of the practical issues and emotional issues,” Cate Briddick from Rights of Women told me, “I’m a lawyer and I only deal with practical issues; and I hadn’t given time or thought to the emotional issues and their implications on the clients.”
Sarah Cowen, an academic from the University of Edinburgh was full of praise for the well-facilitated workshops. “It’s really, really useful for me to hear all those different points of view, everyone working on the same issue but from different perspectives. It makes for a very enriching experience,” she said.
I think the conference was itself a major step in engaging people working with vulnerable women in the next phase of the project. As Amelia Wright from the UKBA acknowledged, “it was great that the Refugee Council managed to gather such a wide range of stakeholders involved in the important issue of vulnerable women”.