Early in July, I went to a panel that discussed the gender dimensions of the refugee crisis. At this event, I met a Human Rights Watch researcher, Skye Wheeler doing work in this subject area. Here’s my interview with her:
Before we discuss gender based violence in the context of refugees, please tell us how you ended up at HRW and your interest in this subject area.
I started off as a journalist, spent a short period of time in humanitarian work, and then joined Human Rights Watch as their South Sudan and Sudan researcher in 2013. At the end of the year the war began in South Sudan. I worked on the war for more than two years, interviewed well over a 1,000 victims, often people who had been raped, who had seen family members killed, had been chased away from everything they owned. Eventually I just really felt like I needed to do something else, it was having an impact on my well-being seeing such extensive suffering. It’s mind-bending how much we hurt each other. I was lucky enough to start this role as the emergencies researcher with the women’s rights division also at Human Rights Watch after that.
Where have you been covering women’s right abuses most recently?
How long do you get deployed to a country in order to report on the situation and what the local girls and women are experiencing? Is the data collection ongoing or is it limited to your trip?
Usually a minimum of two weeks. But it depends on the situation. I try and keep in touch after I leave, to monitor the situation.
What is the greatest challenge or challenges you face when on the ground?
Where to begin? Often I am working alone, and sometimes in countries without an office or any other support. So a lot of my work is finding a driver, the right translator (good language and communication skills, empathetic, will keep to promises of confidentiality we make to victims), somewhere to sleep, how to get to the other side of the country etc. All that takes a lot of energy. Then working out what’s going on, what are the politics and biases different people have that I need to watch out for. Who are the experts, how can I find them? Then there are a lot of security concerns, mostly for victims. Where can we meet that’s safe? Sometimes it’s really hard to find people to talk to, rape is hugely stigmatized more often than not, so you have to find victims very slowly and If I am lucky then there will be an excellent local human rights or humanitarian organization who can help me.
From your recent travel, is there any one story, woman, girl or situation that stands out for you?
It’s hard to pick one story. The stories of the Yezidi women made my blood run cold. Everyone who has worked with them will tell you. It was so sad, not only that they had been captured, repeatedly raped and sold, treated basically as animals, but several of the women I spoke to were missing. They had been rescued but their kids were still with ISIS. They talked to me about feeling a mix of terrible desperation, and also guilt. The trauma of rape can last a long time. My colleague recently did research with women 10 years after they’ve been raped in Kenya and they are still suffering from depression, anxiety.
When I was in Tanzania I spoke to some 70 rape survivors and only one of them didn’t talk about some long term complaint that had developed since she had been raped, like problems sleeping, depression, pains in her body. I met one girl, she was only 15 when she was raped in her home country of Burundi. He father was taken away and she was raped under the banana trees in the bottom of her garden. She was clearly still very anxious, upset. I hope she’s ok, but now she’s living in a refugee camp in Tanzania, so there’s more uncertainty, poverty there. I guess that’s the thing that has stayed with me most doing this research on women’s rights and spending quite a bit of time with survivors, is how deep the damage of rape is, how it can make some people not only sad and angry but, it seems, also unwell and sometimes for a really long time.
What do you think can be done to help refugee women and girls facing these additional barriers?
We need to make sure women and girls who have been raped get access to services, including long term psychosocial or mental healthcare if and as There is still a perception in some quarters that this is an intervention of secondary importance to stitching up bullet holes or curing diseases, but anyone whose interviewed dozens of rape survivors will tell you that the “hidden” damage of rape is devastating. It’s also very frustrating to hear that women and girls got pregnant from rape or got HIV because services such as emergency contraception or post-exposure HIV prophylactics should have been available but were not, or because the survivor didn’t know about the service. Accountability is very important, survivors should be able to report rape and have that report be taken seriously and then see authorities do a proper investigation.
When I was working in South Sudan I helped my expert colleague from our international justice program do some research there and we decided that the government of South Sudan was not going to provide justice any time soon for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed there so we, with others, recommended a hybrid court, a mix of international and South Sudanese judges and lawyers to investigate and prosecute the worst crimes, including, I hope, rape. Impunity for perpetrators takes power away from victims, its corrosive and I think has contributed to the high level of human rights abuses in South Sudan.
Is there a way for the general public to help or do their part?
Be open to refugees, open your heart and your country, keep pressing wealthier governments to help meet the needs of refugees and the millions of other people living in displacement.
I have met so many amazing people in my travels who have really stood up for other people, wonderful soldiers, social workers, lawyers, politicians, prison guards, friends, family members. Despite sometimes taking serious risks or being stigmatized, they make it look easy to do the right thing even in the worst of circumstances, simply the best way to be a human. How to become like them? I am not sure, but think finding out might be a worthwhile lifetime adventure for everyone.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Skye and for sharing with us some insights into your meaningful work.
You can follow Skye on Twitter for more up-to-date news and research on refugees.