It’s July 2016 and Khadija has arrived in a “temporary accommodation site” in Epirus where she is sharing a room with seven people and her shower with sixteen people. They are almost all strangers to her and they come from countries other than her own – including from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet she lives in close proximity to them – a proximity she is not accustomed to.
Sharing accommodation with strange men puts significant restrictions on Khadija’s behaviour and on what she wears. She feels compelled to dress more modestly but has no appropriate summer clothing and despite temperatures of 35 degrees, she continues to wear her winter clothing in which she travelled from Syria.
Yet, despite difficult living conditions inside her tent, Khadija has limited movement outside of it. Public spaces are male dominated and when her friends participate in these spaces they often experience violence - including sexual harassment - or a threat to their reputation.
Living in close quarters with other men means that women’s movement and behaviour is closely scrutinised and if their reputation is perceived of being at risk it can damage the family’s honour. Khadija has male relatives who have used coercion and violence to safeguard it, and now she takes precautions by reducing her movement outside of her tent.
Khadija feels alone because of her reduced access to public spaces. Her isolation also means she lacks vital information which is predominantly being shared through word of mouth. She has limited access to service providers who are mostly engaging in public spaces from which she is absent. Her specific vulnerabilities - including the fact that she is pregnant - are therefore not being identified and she is not being referred to the relevant services.
However, there is a very simple and cheap solution to her isolation, her inability to access information and to reach necessary services. Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS), also known as Female Friendly Spaces are being established in the temporary accommodation sites in Epirus by Oxfam in partnership with Lighthouse Relief and with the support of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
The communities are overwhelmingly positive about them. As one of Khadija’s friends said, “I like the space because it is a peaceful place, and women can interact freely and relax without fear or anxiety. It is a peaceful place.”
Safe spaces allow women and girls of all nationalities to feel comfortable and safe during daylight hours. This coming together of diverse women and girls helps build social cohesion between and within nationalities. Moreover, the space is a Trojan horse that allows for so many additional benefits to the real and perceived sense of safety.
In the space, Khadija accesses information from other women and from decision makers and service providers who are invited into the space. It also enables survivors of gender based violence (including rape and domestic violence) to be identified confidentially and referred for appropriate services, and since the space serves multiple purposes, women who seek services following an incident of violence are not stigmatized for doing so.
It takes only a few weeks until Khadija starts using the safe space and in no time her and her friends request, design and sometimes facilitate activities for the community. This helps relieve Khadija’s boredom and develop her skills, capacities, confidence, and resilience. In Epirus, the activities which have taken place for women and girls have included exercise classes, computer classes, CV writing, language classes, and a seamstress shop.
Recognising the need for a sense of normality, a hairdressing and beauty salon is sometimes made available inside the space to increase women’s self-esteem and increase their morale.
A women and girls safe space is an approach which is starting to gain traction in humanitarian responses across the world as it recognises the unique needs and challenges of women and girls and helps address them by creating a safe environment free from harm, prejudice and judgement, the absence of which is a radical change in many women’s lives.
Oxfam’s program in Epirus, including the creation of WGSS, is funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
What you can do now
This entry posted by Nina Gora, Gender Lead, Oxfam in Greece, on 19 December 2016.
Photos, credit Oxfam:
- Temporary accommodation site for migrants, in Epirus. Photo: Oxfam
- Camp residents accessing clean water.
- Safe spaces allow women and girls of all nationalities to feel comfortable and safe during daylight hours.