Driving Change for Women in German Refugee Camps

EmpowerVan, the brainchild of a group of German feminists, is a new initiative to support female refugees. Claudia Bollwinkel explains how the mobile unit creates a safe space for them.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A migrant woman is silhouetted as she waits inside a tent to get an appointment at the central registration center for refugees and asylum seekers. AP/Markus Schreiber

Last year, more than 1 million refugees arrived in Germany, including a growing number of women and children. Female refugees in particular face dangerous conditions along the trail to Europe, and are often victims of gender-based violence. Even after making the arduous journey to European countries such as Germany, women continue to face challenges.

Claudia Bollwinkel is program manager for the German women’s fund Filia (“daughter” in Latin). Her group focuses on helping women refugees, especially those who have experienced sexual violence in camps and shelters.

One of the initiatives she supports is the EmpowerVan, a mobile advice unit driven to asylum-seeker shelters in the Hamburg area. The van is used as a safe space to assist women – with everything from medical appointments to finding new accommodation if an asylum seeker has experienced abuse. It also provides an area for women to meet, interact and share experiences.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Bollwinkel about this and other efforts to improve the situation for refugee women in Germany.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the biggest challenge for women living in Germany’s refugee camps and shelters?

Claudia Bollwinkel: Within the camps, there is no privacy for women or families. The women have special needs that are not taken into account properly. For example, there are no locks on the showers or on the toilets, so they fall victim to sexual harassment very easily. In many cases, guards in the camps have no sensitivity for the challenges that women face, because they are usually male.

Women & Girls Hub: How are German women’s groups helping refugees?

Bollwinkel: First, they went to the camps in Hamburg and started a women’s cafe there. They gave the women tea and cookies and listened to them and tried to find out what they needed to build a safe space. They created a small space where only women could talk about their challenges.

At this women’s cafe, they found out that most refugee women were not aware they had any rights at all. So [the activists] said: “What we need here is legal empowerment. We need to educate women about the status they have and about the rights they have.”

We have a strong refugee movement here in Germany, where the refugees have started self-organizing to claim their rights, but it’s totally dominated by men. So, at a recent refugee conference, there was a space for women where they could open up, get loud and discuss ideas.

Women & Girls Hub: Can you tell me about the EmpowerVan? How did the idea come about and what will it do in the refugee camps?

Bollwinkel: All the Hamburg feminist organizations got together and tried to decide what best to do. They needed something mobile to go directly to where the women are, and that’s how the idea came about to buy a van.

With the van, [the support team] can go from camp to camp and meet women directly. They can invite women into the van and do consultations right there, and they can also set up a tent to allow more women to get together in a safe space.

Within a very short time, they got financing for two years for the vehicle, for the fuel and one social worker. The local government seized the opportunity to support them because they saw this is something that would really work.

Refugee women at the refugee shelter in Sumte, northern Germany. EmpowerVan offers women a safe place to meet and share their experiences. (AP/Michael Sohn)
Refugee women at the refugee shelter in Sumte, northern Germany. EmpowerVan offers women a safe place to meet and share their experiences. (AP/Michael Sohn)

Women & Girls Hub: Are there examples of past ideas that haven’t worked?

Bollwinkel: I’ve heard from one camp where they built a safe space for women in a tent. They installed Wi-Fi inside, so the women could use the internet. Then, all the men, using their smartphones, hung outside this tent using the Wi-Fi. This was a women’s tent, but it was surrounded by a crowd of men. So the women, at one point, didn’t dare go inside. We have had to learn from some of these mistakes.

Women & Girls Hub: What are some other initiatives that your organization, Filia, backs?

Bollwinkel: We support a group called Women in Exile, based outside Berlin in Brandenburg. I’m a big fan of them because they are a self-organized group. They were started by women who came to Germany asking for political refuge from several African countries. They had lived in camps themselves so they knew first-hand what challenges women were experiencing there. They visited women in the camps and advised them how they can change the situation. If in a camp, for example, there’s a guard who is sexually harassing immigrants, they tell them where they can file a complaint.

Last year, they organized a meeting where refugee women from several parts of the country got together. They built a catalog of political demands and found allies in human rights movements, like other NGOs. These allies signed the declaration and then they officially gave this declaration to the minister of immigration.

This is one of the few groups in Germany that’s run by refugee women themselves. I think it’s very important they speak with their own voice and gain public attention, because they are experts of their own situation.

Women & Girls Hub: Why do you think the rights of refugee women have been sidelined for so long?

Bollwinkel: I think people still have in their minds that refugees coming to Germany are mostly men, but the numbers are different now. I think it’s something that’s slowly sinking into people’s minds, that it’s also women and whole families who are coming. It’s not just young men who are looking for better opportunities.

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