The country still has time to get it right
Enana Alassar sits on a colorful stage at a recent Berlin street festival, holding her guitar, about to sing. “This is about how I came from Syria to Berlin,” she says to the audience.
Her song is a truncated version of a painful journey, and there are a few details that the 22-year-old Syrian refugee doesn’t share in the lyrics that describe being “stuffed into a minivan” and driving a “sinking boat”: that sinking boat was supposed to seat two, and was crammed with 16 people. She paddled it from Turkey to Greece because the engine didn’t work. A smuggler stuffed her and others into a minivan, where she was told someone would come and pick them up; no one did. The group was attacked by packs of dogs.
And she leaves out what was for her another surprising part of the journey: the conditions she found when she arrived in Berlin last August. At that point, the country was just starting to receive massive flows of migrants, predominantly fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. While other countries around the world closed their borders, Germany welcomed them. The country received more than 476,000 asylum applicants — about 31% of them women — in 2015, and more than 1 million refugees arrived in the country. But humanitarian workers say it was unprepared for the massive influx—especially when it came to refugee women.
Inside most refugee shelters, men’s and women’s toilets and showers weren’t separated. There were generally no private sleeping areas, and women who had experienced sexual assault or violence had very little access to support services and resources. “These things that weren’t expensive to solve, that would’ve gone a long way to improving women’s safety and dignity, were completely overlooked,” says Marcy Hersh, senior advocacy officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, who wrote a report earlier this year on the treatment of female refugees in Germany and Sweden.
“It was horrible at the beginning,” Alassar, who works now as a musician, told me over coffee in Berlin in July, the same week that the country experienced a spate of violent attacks, some carried out by refugees. “We have this idea about the West that it’s a utopia or something … And then you come and you’re faced with sexism, racism and bureaucracy.” And violence — the kind that refugees like Alassar were running from.
After interviewing female refugees in Berlin, as well as humanitarian workers, government officials and NGOs, I came away with a portrait of a country that is trying to do the right thing — but is not quite there. While the experiences of female refugees can vary widely based on a number of factors — including country of origin, age, education level and which part of Germany they reside in — there are still some basic steps the country as a whole can take to improve.
As the stream of migrants has slowed, in large part due to the E.U.-Turkey deal and Germany’s revised immigration laws, the government has rolled out new initiatives targeting women’s security and overall integration. But experts in the country say progress across the states is uneven, and that some recently passed legislation and policies, even those designed for women, may make life harder not only for them but for all refugees.
Why, in a country that tops global gender-equality rankings, do many advocates say progress on addressing women’s needs been so slow?
One reason that Germany may not be rolling out the red carpet: it doesn’t want people to stay permanently. A recent poll shows about half of Germans disapprove of welcoming Syrian refugees, a shift from polling that showed more widespread support in the fall of 2015. Support for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her welcoming policies reportedly fell after more than 1,000 women reported that they were sexually assaulted — in some cases by male asylum seekers — on New Year’s Eve.
In July, the German Parliament passed a new domestic-violence law in response those assaults, which expands the definition of what constitutes a sex crime (including, for instance, groping). For feminists across Germany, this law was a long time coming. But it could also have adverse effects on female refugees: it makes it easier for authorities to expel refugees convicted of violent crimes, which means that women experiencing domestic abuse may be less likely to reveal it to police or social workers for fear that their husband, brother or cousin could be sent back to their home country.
Franziska Brantner, a member of German Parliament and the Green Party, says she thinks the new law illuminates a troubling double standard. Germany has changed its own sexual penal code, but at the same time, “we aren’t yet ready to look at how women refugee victims are facing sexual violence from German security personnel, and other refugees … we still can’t see that female refugees have specific needs.”
Though the Ministry for Family Affairs recently partnered with UNICEF to produce minimum safety standards for refugee-reception centers to protect women and children, they aren’t legally binding or reflected in national legislation. That means their effect may, at least in the short term, be limited to the 25 shelters where the ministry is funding pilot implementation programs.
Part of the problem is that policymakers and civil-society representatives normally don’t involve female refugees in conversations about how to design particular policies and programs. Women who have been through war are not just needy victims. They can play a crucial role as intermediaries between the government and their own communities, helping newcomers adapt to the new environment, and providing advice and guidance to policymakers and humanitarian workers who are trying to design programs to help vulnerable populations.
Ines Kappert, executive director of the Gunda Werner Institute of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, an organization promoting feminism and gender democracy, says that the government is aware that women’s participation in the labor market is crucial, and that it can’t forget the needs of female refugees. “But the question is: How do they do that?”
That question is complicated, in large part because not forgetting women must also mean involving men, and addressing the complex social dynamic that exists between men and women in society — and between refugees and the German government.
We don’t spend enough time asking how we can better prepare male refugees — many of whom are coming from conservative, patriarchal societies — for the enormous loss of power and identity that can come from transitioning into a new, more egalitarian society, says anthropologist Kathleen Kuehnast, senior gender adviser at the United States Institute of Peace. Programs that engage men on these subjects can play a role in mitigating domestic violence and abuse, Kuehnast says. And diffusing this type of domestic violence early on can be critical for long-term security. What’s more, some research suggests that policies that only target women without considering how that will impact male family members can increase domestic violence, because men lose social status and are threatened by such displacement.
Germans must also reimagine the social contract between refugees and the government. Today, the countervailing idea is that to be German requires giving up one’s own cultural identity — seen, for example, in the discussion about banning the niqab, says Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a cultural psychologist at Stanford who has studied the psychology of homegrown radicalization in Germany. Changing this dynamic — in other words, not forcing migrants to choose between identities — could have security implications by making refugees less likely to accept messages from ISIS and other extremist groups.
In all too many countries around the world, gender is deprioritized when formulating policies or programs to address the needs of post-conflict or vulnerable populations. Germany still has time to get it right. The future of its security — and the rest of the E.U. — may depend on it.
This article is part of a research and journalism project from New America’s Global Gender Parity Initiative that seeks to illuminate the crucial linkage between gender and security, and why policymakers often overlook it.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.