Meeting the Needs of Women and Girl Migrants and Refugees in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework: The Unique Role of Faith-Based Organizations
August 8, 2018
The purpose of this paper is to outline major challenges that highly vulnerable women and girl migrants and refugees face, and then to provide suggested approaches to meeting those challenges with a focus on the role of faith-based organizations (FBOs). The articulation of the protection needs of this population, and the framework of suggested best practices for meeting those needs, is not new. However, what may be new is the opportunity to look very critically and closely at the unique position of FBOs to be a profound contributor at this historical moment. The 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (“the Declaration”) and its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) lay out a shared responsibility model in which civil society and FBOs play a central role in protecting refugees and vulnerable migrants. FBOs’ centrality in this model provides a point of departure for the 2018 global compacts on refugees and migrants and, more importantly, their fulsome implementation in the weeks, months, and years to come (UNHCR 2018b; United Nations n.d.).
The Current Migration Crisis: Historical, Political, and Moral Framework
We are in a moment of grave humanitarian crisis. At this writing, there are more than 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons, including over 25.4 million refugees. The former is the largest recorded number in history (RefugePoint and Women’s Refugee Commission 2016; Grandi 2017). This mass movement has arisen out of war, conflict, persecution, violence, and unprecedented and growing disparities in access to food, water, education, health, employment, economic vitality, political agency, stability, environmental security, and religious tolerance and freedom. Those with heightened vulnerabilities stemming from longstanding cultural and social inequities, such as women, girls, and those with disabilities, experience these disparities with more intensity (UNHCR 2018a, 16). Particularly vulnerable individuals also have little in the way of a safety net in the eventuality of a crisis. When terrorism, war, gang or narcotrafficking violence, environmental disaster, or political uprising and attendant dictatorial crackdowns arise with a backdrop of overall insecurity and gender inequality, women and girls may find that they have no other choice than to run for their lives (UNHCR 2015). Gender-related vulnerabilities are then further amplified in the chaos and exposure of the migration journey, and even in reception and destination sites.
Vulnerabilities in Places of Origin
Before they are forced to flee, women and girls often face enormous and entrenched inequities that threaten their daily safety and well-being. They often suffer from poverty, violent governmental or criminal actors who operate with impunity, and structural racial and ethnic inequalities that affect their village, city, or broad swaths of the country. However, when gender inequities are also deeply woven into the cultural and historical fabric, women and girls suffer uniquely and intensely because they have little access to the limited resources within an already tenuous setting. The following is a short rendering of some major categories of pervasive gender inequality faced by women and girls. These challenges were cited by refugee women themselves in dialogue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) beginning in 2010 and reported on in 2013 (UNHCR 2011).
In their communities of origin, girls are often excluded from scarce educational opportunities: in a choice between sending a boy or a girl to school given limited resources, the girl is often passed over. Where girls are permitted to attend primary school, the opportunity to continue on to secondary and tertiary schooling is comparatively rare (UNHCR 2011, 24). Attending school often requires traveling long distances through unsafe territory with the constant threat of violence including rape and physical attacks en route. Girls are further curbed in their ability to learn by lack of access to adequate sanitation materials and basic health care. The consequences are profound for girls, their families, and their communities. When women and girls are denied education, they are then less skilled, less self-reliant, and less able to protect their families and children in times of crisis, including where a male provider dies or becomes disabled. Without education, women and girls are also more readily excluded from positions of power and decision-making (ibid., 14). By contrast, among other benefits, education of women and girls reduces rates of maternal and infant mortality, child marriage and teen pregnancy, and increases child vaccination rates (UNHCR 2016).
Women and girls are often relegated to a limited sphere in and around their homes, with little access to broader employment and training opportunities (Pittaway, Bell, Bartolomei 2016, 5). In contrast, men and boys are often permitted to move more freely and they benefit from jobs and training in urban areas. When women and girls work in an urban area without male accompaniment or protection, the same entrenched normalization of gender-based violence can leave them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, as well as to modern forms of slavery or indentured servitude. With lower levels of education and limited prospects for employment, women and girls also are more vulnerable to being lured by bad actors with the false promise of marriage or a job, and may end up trapped in a labor or sex trafficking web from which they cannot escape. To the extent that they escape following sexual violence, return to their home community is often impossible as they are shunned and viewed as “damaged goods” that bring shame upon their families.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV)
Women and girls are routinely subjected to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) including rape and sexual slavery (UNHCR 2011, 16; KIND and Human Rights Center Fray Matías de Córdova 2017). The risk of SGBV is heightened when an already misogynist culture is compounded by violent criminal actors who are allowed to victimize women and girls with impunity. In many countries and communities of origin, justice systems fail to protect, and indeed further victimize, women and girls. Law enforcement may refuse to investigate or arrest perpetrators of violence, and police often view domestic violence as a private matter with which they should not interfere. Specifically, authorities often disregard or refuse to intervene in reports of domestic battery, marital rape, forced child marriage, or incest, particularly where such acts are condoned by powerful men and institutions, including those claiming religious authority. For women and girls, reporting crimes can bring retribution without protection. Criminal actors such as gangs follow through on threats of violence if women or girls dare to report violence, both to set an example and to terrorize communities. Women have little access to legal representation and information, and prosecution and conviction rates for crimes of violence and retribution against women and girls are often abysmally low, leading many women and girls not to report crimes at all (UNHCR 2011, 22).
Where the perpetrators are powerful organized criminal actors, police may fear taking any action, and tell women or girls that they cannot protect them – and in some cases even advise them to leave the country to survive. Police themselves may also be complicit in or part of such gangs or transnational criminal operations (UNHCR 2015, 25). Women and girls who are victims of rape or other forms of SGBV are often stigmatized and ostracized, increasing the likelihood that they will be revictimized. Mental health and medical services are woefully under-resourced, forcing victims including young girls to navigate their ongoing trauma without support. Compounding oppression, girls may be forced into child marriages where the parent fears an alternative of destitution.
Women and girls often lack access to basic health care for a number of intersecting reasons including gender inequities. In many communities of origin, there are insufficient health centers and emergency ambulances, medications are prohibitively expensive, and women and girls without economic means and independence have difficulty obtaining the transport, money, and translation services needed to access facilities (UNHCR 2011, 30). Women and girls are systematically unable to obtain adequate medical and mental health care in the areas of gynecology and obstetrics, as survivors of rape, and as mothers to children born of rape including those with HIV.
This is the backdrop of the lives of many refugee women and girls before a single step is taken on the migration journey. A tenuous hold on safety, health, education, and opportunity in daily life is only amplified in the chaos of crisis, such as war, political instability, terrorism, or other push-factors leading women and girls to flee. When inequality is quite literally the point of departure for a dangerous journey to seek safety, the challenges ahead must be faced with few resources and little or no cushion between the refugee and an onslaught of dangers to come.
Vulnerabilities in Transit, Reception, and Destination Sites
Women and girls typically choose to flee as a last resort—when a triggering event makes the already tenuous situation untenable. For example, a girl who lives in a deeply misogynist culture in which she is denied schooling, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, and lacks access to basic health care or reliable sources of food and water, may nonetheless remain at home where she has some familial and community support. In addition to lacking the financial means to readily relocate, women and girls may be particularly reticent to flee because the potential dangers of rape, trafficking, and death during the journey may outweigh the known risks of staying. However, they may experience an event or events that push that calculation to the side of flight, however terrifying. For example, a woman or girl may be targeted by a gang member and “chosen” to serve as a sexual slave under threat of death. She may have seen her family and peers targeted for rape, torture, or killing by a powerful criminal entity — and know that she is likely next if she remains, particularly as she comes of age into puberty. When a woman or girl chooses to flee in such circumstances, the baseline inequities, vulnerabilities, and gendered dangers expand during the journey, and indeed tragically often at the point of reception and in the host community as well.
Migrant women and girls need “protection against gender discrimination in all phases of the migration process” (GMG 2017, 153). The UNHCR Heightened Risk Identification Tool elucidates categories of refugees with special protection concerns including women at risk, unaccompanied children, child-headed, and single-parent households, and victims of trauma and sexual violence (UNHCR 2010). Women and girls fit into a number of these risk categories. Refugee and migrant children, in particularly unaccompanied children, are at increasingly grave risk in transit. A recent UNHCR report notes:
In 2016 and 2017, children were disproportionately affected by refugee crises, with children representing 51 per cent of the global refugee population, compared to only 31 per cent in the general population. Children who move across international borders face significant risks, including trafficking, forced recruitment into armed groups, SGBV, kidnapping, child labour, child marriage, and separation from parents and other family members. (UNHCR 2018a, 3)
Take the example of Anna, a composite story among thousands similarly occurring in 2018. Anna is young girl of 14 fleeing the rampant violence in El Salvador in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Anna was among the more than half of all El Salvadoran women that report experiencing violence, including physical or sexual violence in a quarter of the cases (KIND 2018). Anna was abandoned by her father at a young age and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend who was a member of the powerful MS-13 gang that operates with impunity in her community and in many parts of the country as a whole. Anna was not permitted to continue in school past age 12 because the family did not have enough money to send both her and her brother. Instead, starting at age 13, Anna worked as a maid in the home of a couple that physically abused her and denied her food. When an older man promised to marry and protect her, Anna was relieved until he locked her in a room and allowed members of his gang to take turns raping her. Anna learned that the man was also a powerful member of the MS-13 gang. He told Anna that she belonged to him now and that she could never leave or he would kill her and her family. The gang had also recruited her brothers and uncles, and controlled their local community, demanding payments under threat of death.
Terrified for her life and that of her daughter, Anna’s mother paid a guide, or coyote, to bring them to the United States. A cousin in the United States said that he would help Anna’s mother find a job and support Anna so that she could go to school. Anna and her mother traveled in a group with the coyote, but were attacked by armed Mexican cartel members who took their money and documents at gunpoint. The guide abandoned the group in the desert, and without sufficient water, many of them died.
Anna and her mother arrived at the US border and turned themselves in to a border patrol agent, exhausted and begging for protection. The border patrol agent told them that he knew they had come just to work illegally, and that there were no more “slots” available for asylum so they would have to return to El Salvador. Anna and her mother were then separated. Anna was placed in a holding cell with other children while her mother was moved to an adult detention facility. The border agent told Anna that they were separating her from her mother to send a message that other “illegals” should not try to come to the United States.
Anna was terrified and freezing in the holding cell, which was kept at a very low temperature. She had no warm clothing and older boys took the one thin blanket that Anna had been given. Children around her were crying for their parents. Anna was given food that she did not recognize and could not eat easily. She felt sick with worry for her mother and herself. Later Anna was moved to a shelter for children but no one at the facility could tell her where her mother was or when she might see or speak with her. Because Anna’s documents, including her birth certificate, had been stolen on her journey, the shelter workers could not confirm her identity and so she could not leave for a long time.
After a few months, Anna was released to the custody of her male cousin but her mother was kept in detention. When Anna started living with her cousin, he tried his best to help her and brought her to school to register her so she could start classes. However, the school official told them that Anna could not enroll in school because she did not have the right documents. When Anna finally was permitted to begin school, she was amongst the oldest in her grade. As she had not been in school for many years, she found the classwork daunting and feared that she was failing her cousin even as he offered her the opportunity. She missed her mother and wondered when she would see her again. Anna wondered whether if she had done something differently, her mother’s boyfriend would not have abused her or maybe the other gang member would have left her alone. She felt it was all her fault. She went to the school counselor and talking helped a little but her school counselor was very busy. Anna had heard about therapists and thought going to one might help, but she did not have insurance or money and her cousin did not know how to help her. Anna felt discouraged, especially because some of the other children in her class had started telling her that the president hated her and would make sure she and the other “illegals” went home. Anna’s teacher heard the children, but said nothing. Anna was terrified that she would be sent back to El Salvador and the gang member who said he owned her would lock her up or even kill her for betraying him by fleeing. Anna felt isolated and did not know where to turn for help. She had always had strong faith and she hoped that God would protect her. She thought that maybe God was punishing her because she had done something wrong, and this thought took away one of the only forms of comfort she had remaining.
Stories like Anna’s illustrate the complex, interconnected, and multifaceted challenges faced by women and child migrants in their home countries, in flight, and in their host communities. Even those who reach expected points of safety may find themselves face-to-face with policies and practices born out of new 12 levels of protectionism and cruelty. The Trump administration’s practice of systematically separating children from their parents at the border, and then prosecuting parents who ask for asylum is one example, though there are numerous others in the United States and across the globe as fervent resistance to welcoming refugees grows (Podkul and Shindel 2018).
What Can FBOs Do?
FBOs have a vital role to play in the protection of women and girls in their places of origin, in transit, and in destination sites. FBOs are also uniquely positioned to make a profound and durable impact by virtue of their geographic, moral, and political reach and influence. FBOs and faith leaders have long moved with fluidity amongst stakeholders including refugee and migrant populations, government leaders, international bodies, and civil society, and even have a singular point of entry in many cases to reaching nongovernmental perpetrators of violence (UNHCR 2014, 13). FBOs also can avoid the power dynamic at times attendant to the humanitarian organization worker serving the victim. Through the equalizing commonality of faith, the FBO may approach service from an ethic of equality and a posture of humility: “there but for the grace of God go I.”
International humanitarian entities may have a more short-term, less grounded commitment due to more limited missions, resources, and time. Faith institutions, by contrast, are often committed to and entrenched in communities of origin, liminal spaces of transit, and receiving communities. By their nature, they cross temporal or geographic bounds. The tenets of the faith, and the moral framework therein, survive even when buildings and villages are destroyed. This permanence is particularly important because the flow of migrants shows no signs of abating. Faith institutions will continue to play a critical role in spaces of transit and host communities, serving as vessels for protection, integration, and mutual commitment and understanding between migrants and host communities.
Addressing Root Causes
FBOs and the faith institutions also often have a long-term, deeply connected presence in countries of origin from which refugees and migrants flee. As such, they are well-positioned to help address the root causes of violence and instability that prompt migrants to leave. Because of their long-term presence and deep roots in the community, as well as in local and national centers of power, faith leaders have the best chance of reaching individual hearts and minds within corrupt political, insurgent, and transnational criminal regimes that may be otherwise untouchable by the arguments of international governance bodies. In particular, faith leaders have the moral authority to unravel narratives of myopic interpretation of religion used by power brokers to justify gender-based violence and oppression in the first place. If a reframing of righteousness can happen in the country of origin — particularly by amplifying the voice of the marginalized such as women and girls who should have equal claim to the application of religious tenets and textual interpretations — larger shifts in home countries and communities may occur. Indeed, we have seen that individual and community resistance to violence perpetrated or tolerated by the government often has spiritual or religious underpinnings. For example, boys who refuse to join gangs or other criminal organizations, and even those who join but then repudiate and resist them, often cite religious and moral beliefs as grounds for opposing violence. Further, as faith institutions may stay long after international agencies or other humanitarian actors have left, they can continue to work on long-term change (UNHCR 2014, 8).
Opening Hearts and Minds — Beyond Politics, Xenophobia, and “Cultures of Scarcity”
The resources that have been committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our vulnerable brothers and sisters fleeing their home countries in search of safety, remain profoundly lacking. Indeed, tragically but not coincidentally, the enormity of need and the wide-scale movement of desperate persons within and across borders is now being met in many instances with a backlash of nationalism, xenophobia, and profound unwillingness to welcome the stranger and bring her into the fold of safety and protection. In a vicious cycle that appears to be rippling and replicating across nations and continents, this insular nationalistic posture is both responsive to, and a cause of, political leaders peddling profoundly uncharitable and false narratives about refugees and migrants. The multiple forms of violence and exclusion that the migrant experiences in transit and destination sites, in turn, breed marginalization, lack of ability to self-sustain due to restricted opportunities, and in some instances radicalization. The view of the refugee “other” as non-integrating and non-contributing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy precisely because the proverbial door of inclusion is shut to the stranger at every turn.
The explicit calling out of the current widespread nationalism and xenophobia within the text of the New York Declaration and CFFR is vital to making clear that the international community will not tolerate this response, which runs directly counter to agreed-upon norms and obligations. Strong and unambiguous condemnation by member states is necessary for bright-line moral and legal strictures within which the global compacts on refugees and migrants and implementing frameworks will be developed. But these compacts and the implementing processes that grow out of them will not alone reach the hearts and minds of those who increasingly view the refugee other as an “illegal” violator of borders who brings inevitable danger and an intolerable drain on precious resources.
Historically faith leaders have posited that such primal fear and zero-sum protectionist mindsets need to be broken open in the spiritual language that runs deeply in hearts, across numerous traditions and communities. In the context of a global refugee crisis that asks for those who are already in varying degrees of need to open their doors to others, the siren call of incendiary political leaders, fear-mongering, and scapegoating is strong. It is perhaps only a deeply humanistic and spiritual song that can compete through the moral imperative that the other simply cannot be pushed away without also pushing away the divine, which is a cost too burdensome to bear.
Upon arrival, the refugee has profound needs and often may not be in an immediate position to fully contribute to the host community. FBOs and faith leaders can help shepherd all parties through this liminal period that otherwise may devolve if the host community views the refugee as permanently taking and not giving. The spiritual language of grace is key at this moment: faith leaders can acknowledge that the host community is suffering from the same forces of globalization and structural inequity that caused the refugee to flee, and yet ask for the community to extend grace nonetheless. The pause of grace to receive the stranger as she is — tired, in need of shelter and healing — can create a new self-fulfilling prophecy in which the refugee, taking energy from the trust engendered by that space of grace, will engage, solve, and expansively benefit the host community in turn. The shift that faith leaders and organizations can help engender then is a movement from a “culture of scarcity” (Brené Brown) to a culture of abundance and a sense that when the divine promises the possibility of plenty for all, abundance will follow precisely because all will be cared for and in turn strengthened to serve and contribute.
But over the long-term, in order to sustain the willingness of destination sites to welcome the stranger, spiritual imperatives will not be enough. FBOs must continually and explicitly acknowledge the mutual and multiplicative suffering of refugees and their receiving communities, and provide ongoing opportunities for one-to-one interaction by both sides. Indeed, FBOs, places of worship, and interfaith spaces themselves can serve as apt locations for precisely the kind of “direct personal contact between host 17 communities and refugees and migrants” that the Secretary General has cited as vital to countering xenophobia and intolerance (UNGA 2016, 15). Moreover, FBOs must devise thoughtful and synergistic long-term solutions that benefit both migrants and the host community. FBOs will succeed only where all parties reap the benefits of their presence and attendant strengthening of institutions and broader import of skills and resources.
Once the spiritual, political, and economic space is opened up for the migrant to claim agency and begin to contribute in the new community, the FBO can also help ensure that solutions become durable, meaning that all players are committed and present — physically and otherwise — for the long term. This void is particularly deep: less than 3 percent of refugees have access to permanent settlement in a safe country, legal integration into the country of asylum, or repatriation (Refugepoint and Women’s Refugee Commission 2016).
Subverting Gender Paradigms — Making Women and Girls Leaders and Teachers
It is clear that grace by the host community is vital, because migrant women and children arrive with a backdrop of having been deeply mired in inequities that have stripped them of internal and external resources. And yet, this reality should not dampen the redemptive possibility that a new homeland can provide with separation from the limitations of the past. Women and girl refugees have incredible reserves of strength, talent, and latent power that can be released in the new setting (Paik 2014). Shed of economic and social-political gender inequalities, and in some cases, perverse religious justifications for gender oppression, refugee women and girls can be agents to subvert gender norms, teach and mentor, and find solutions not only for themselves and other migrants, but also for the communities in which they are resettling:
Crisis changes social and cultural structures quickly, which can serve as opportunities to redefine gender norms and contribute to the balancing of power in gender relations. (IASC 2017, 25)
In many cases, the FBO can help facilitate the front-and-centering of women and girls in the diaspora precisely because of the moral authority of faith leadership to disrupt claimed religious norms that served as tools of oppression. The shift from dependency to agency through the disruption of gender paradigms is another way that the FBO can benefit both refugees and their host communities, by helping to alleviate oppression in all its forms and locations.
FBOs at Work
FBOs have long served as key partners to UNHCR in providing services and protection to refugees and migrants. Large FBOs have consistently been among UNHCR’s top implementing partners. In 2013, the Lutheran World Federation and Islamic Relief Worldwide were amongst UNHCR’s top 10 international implementing partners, and Caritas was amongst the top 10 of UNHCR’s national faith-based organization partners (UNHCR 2014, 8). Across the globe, FBOs and faith institutions serve in extraordinarily challenging settings. Interfaith collaboratives spring up in emergent moments, filling a vital need. For example, after the 2011 Côte d’Ivoire presidential elections, over half a million people were displaced. Local faith institutions and FBOs including parishes of the Roman Catholic Church, Caritas, Muslim mosques and communities, and Charismatic groups, stepped up to provide immediate emergency shelters and humanitarian assistance (ibid., 11).
An April 2018 study by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) and Boston College’s Center for Social Innovation highlighted dozens of pioneering faith-based programs providing protection for refugees and migrants (FADICA 2018, 1). These programs address root causes of migration, provide protection in transit, and facilitate successful resettlement through the provision of shelter, skills training, and trauma-healing. The FADICA study points to the faith community’s global and local structures, relationships, spiritual principles, and resources that can be “repurposed to solve new problems,” including the mass migration crisis (Schlumpf 2018).
Small-scale faith-based programs can have a huge impact for individuals to whom they serve as a lifeline in the midst of a treacherous journey. The Home for Migrants Shelter “Bethlehem” in Tapachula, Mexico at the Guatemalan border is one such program (SIMN 2014). Under the leadership of Scalabrinian priest Father Florenzo Rigoni, c.s., the shelter provides respite and vital services for migrants regardless of their identities and complexities. Pregnant girls, individuals with HIV and other infectious diseases, victims of sex trafficking, former prostitutes, and transgender individuals, are all welcomed and served through the on-site provision of wrap-around medical, financial, educational, and spiritual support at the shelter. The shelter exemplifies a unique blend of innovative and integrative faith-based programming providing vital interdisciplinary services for the most vulnerable in tenuous settings. In his role as a faith leader in action, Father Rigoni lives and serves fearlessly in a border zone under threat of reprisal from criminal actors, and then pivots with fluidity and ease to present in Geneva and move mountains on behalf of those he serves: “Father Rigoni is a political animal. He’s become a masterful fundraiser for his shelter and can move seamlessly between the worlds of poverty and money” (Fernandez De Castro 2016). Faith leaders, institutions, and organizations like these are at the forefront of innovative protection programming for refugees and migrants, and they will be crucial to the effective and durable implementation of the promises of the Global Compacts.
 Meeting the Needs of Women and Girl Migrants and Refugees in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework: The Unique Role of Faith-Based Organizations.
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