We always tell the girls and ladies who come to our Athena Centre for Women on Chios: “this is your safe space now, let us all work together to support each other and grow it together.”
Since Action from Switzerland opened the doors of the Centre in summer 2016, to the female refugee population, more than 4000 girls and women aged 11 years and above have passed through its doors, gaining access to a safe space for vocational training/education, crucial information pertaining to female health, the support to open up about sexual gender based violence. The Centre has been able to provide the crucial and much needed psychosocial support and protection through our own team as well as in coordination with other relevant humanitarian actors on the island. It has been rewarding working with the women, in establishing some normality, structure and restoring some dignity in their lives. Through daily interactions in this safe space, we had been to deal with suicide attempts, domestic violence, trafficking, and fascist attacks, against one of the most vulnerable groups in the refugee population.
Focus groups are one of our most crucial tools to keep the finger on the pulse of the population’s challenges faced by the girls and women. They are conducted every quarterly where we are able to gather important information, a window into their daily lives, so that we can provide these women with the resources that they need to be successful throughout the rest of their journey or the beginning of their integration into society.
Our most recent one was attended by Afghan, Kurdish and Syrian ladies. The subjects discussed form the pillars of what the Athena Centre for Women stand for:
- Access to information/education and
- Psychosocial support.
There are consistently recurring themes from all the focus groups and some of the feedback remain worrying, which we will continue to advocate for.
The girls continue to feel unsafe. There is a particular lack of freedom for women in Vial. Reports of unrepaired doors and lack of security locks surfaced again.
In both camps, they have to walk in groups or with their husbands just to use the bathroom because they are followed by strangers. There is a shocking lack of respect for gender specific restrooms, and feedback was given that men use the women’s’ facilities all the time, even when the facility is being occupied by a woman at that very moment.
When advised to report such incidents to the relevant authorities, there is a huge distrust and unwillingness to report any incidents.
Domestic violence is on the rise but remains the most frustratingly under reported form of gender based violence for fear of retaliation from their fathers or husbands. As families battle the sluggish asylum process, the men who have been primarily responsible for the family financially, feel increasingly emasculated. Restricted by not being able to work, some channel the fear and frustration into physical violence towards their wives and daughters. Low education levels, social and cultural stigma has also allowed to be practiced and sadly, tolerated, as the women want to protect the reputation of their families. When they do find the courage to come forward, and despite a referral pathway being established on Chios for sexual gender based violence crimes in allowing the women to access legal and medical assistance, complaints are often not addressed swiftly enough by police and security personnel responsible. On previous occasions, breaches of confidentiality have happened by responsible authorities, untrained in protecting a victim’s safety and privacy.
Also, police investigations and judicial response has also been sluggish, exposing the women and girls to repeated harassments and intimidation by the perpetrators, especially when victims continue to live in the same vicinity. This has caused the women to develop a huge distrust of the system to deliver justice.
ACCESS TO INFORMATION/EDUCATION & VOCATIONAL TRAINING
We strongly believe in autonomy and empowering the girls and women. Our schedule board of activities at the Centre is a constant reflection of what the girls want. Education is crucial that offers a sense of empowerment, providing hope and a semblance of a structure in an otherwise uncertain situation. It instils a sense of worth and purpose that we hope, helps minimise despair. It is heartening that feedback from every focus group consistently reflects the eagerness of the women to learn and improve themselves.
However, the theme of inequality in power relationships continues to rear its ugly head. The ladies have to balance difficult circumstances while navigating the asylum process, while trying to fulfil their household/motherly duties, make it extremely difficult for them to consistently keep up with the language courses in a bid to gain marketable skills. Some shared that generally, the men refuse to take care of the children. Some of them are also not allowed to work due to restrictions imposed by their husbands or other societal barriers in their countries of origins.
According to the participants, Farsi or Kurdi speakers are facing a harder time accessing education due to their status as a minority refugee population. While some women were working on post graduate degrees, others cannot read. There is quite a bit of access to language courses such as English or Greek, but no proper educational programs such as university courses or other degree programs.
The second biggest issue from the focus group concerns the limited availability of psychological support. It is felt by all of the women and they have expressed the need for psychological support. Health care is available, but psychosocial support to process traumatic experiences is few and far between. There are only two female psychologists from humanitarian actors who are permanently based on Chios providing the much needed consistent support. The women have found the Centre useful, in facilitating their ability to expand their social networks as having a wider social network allows women more opportunities to calibrate their emotional lives.
It was mentioned that “having someone to listen can do more good than 100 pills,” especially in their current situation. We are heartened to witness budding friendships that are cementing between nationalities and have been so honoured to get to know the women on a deeper level, where they’ve opened up about their fears and challenges, and in some cases, been able to provide the relevant psychosocial support some so badly need.