Intimate Partner Violence in Refugee Populations

Parker Sanchez, The Unmentionables' Ambassador.

How do we balance cultural sensitivity with the real issue of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in refugee populations? This thought came to my mind so many times as I prepared to travel with The Unmentionables’ Greece Field Team this summer. I’m a former SGBV victims’ advocate and counselor, a feminist, and hopefully sensitive in general – but where is the line crossed between acknowledging the unimaginable stresses of the refugee experience versus explaining away violence against women?

When it comes to refugee needs, protection against sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) is an urgent, core issue. There are many types of SGBV a displaced person may experience during the migratory journey, but they are generally divided into four categories: Physical, Sexual, Emotional/Psychological, and Denial of Access to Resources or Services. Sometimes these crimes are perpetrated in the home country, often causing the original flight. The journey from home country to first refugee location is especially dangerous for victimization. The heightened stress environment of the refugee camp, or the unfamiliar culture of the final destination can also be fertile ground for SGBV crimes.


Physical SGBV includes: so-called honour-related crimes (killing, maiming), physical assault (beating, biting, burning, kicking), using instruments to cause harm, slavery, infanticide/femicide, confinement, punishments for defying cultural norms, genital mutilation/cutting.

Sexual SGBV includes: rape, marital rape, attempted rape, child sexual abuse, online sexual abuse, sexual violence as a weapon of war or torture, genital mutilation, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, trafficking, sexual violence based on sexual orientation, survival sex (While technically “consensual,” many view survival sex as a type of sexual violence. Highly stigmatized by both the police and their communities, those who turn to survival sex are left exposed to exploitation and often unable to seek legal redress).

Emotional/Psychological SGBV includes: verbal abuse, confinement, forced marriage and child marriage, social exclusion based on sexual orientation or gender identity, humiliation, manipulation/gaslighting.

Denial of Access to Resources and Services includes: denying girls their right to education, depriving women of inheritance, property or landownership, giving boys/men preferential access to food or services, depriving women of the right to pass on nationality.


Victimization in any of these ways would be devastating, life-altering – but imagine the additional layer of one or more of these crimes being perpetrated against you by the one person who has promised to love and cherish you above all others. Intimate partner violence adds another psychological layer to any of the types of SGBV above.

There is no doubt that the unique stress of the refugee experience is massive (and unimaginable from our comfortable lives). Large families cooped up in small tents or apartments in severe heat, financial strain, the inability to work, the difficulties of applying for legal status, the fear of being sent back to a dangerous place, adjustment to a new country and culture, language barriers and more. It is no wonder refugees feel stressed. It is no wonder refugees feel angry.

When I worked in the court system in America, I often assisted women seeking protection from their abuser. Every lawyer always tried to get their client ordered to “Anger Management” courses. Anger management as a code for batterers’ counseling is a misnomer that, luckily, many of the judges in our courthouse wouldn’t fall for. A person with “anger management” issues explodes regardless of the situation they are in - at work, in public, towards everyone. A batterer targets their frustration and rage towards those they say to love, but who they see as powerless.

Promoting gender equality is the cornerstone principle in addressing SGBV. After all, gender is a fluid concept, simply meaning what our society or culture teaches us about how we should behave according to our sex. An organization like The Unmentionables, which provides intimate items, has a unique ability to form extremely personal bonds across cultural lines. This is an opportunity to provide educational programming that can help displaced persons explore the concepts of gender and help prevent intimate partner violence. Stay tuned for more information about The Unmentionables’ program Change Champions, which will address these issues.