IGC Podcast: Gender Dynamics in Internal Displacement

For the December 2023 episode of the IGC podcast, we were joined by Alexandra Bilak, Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and Geneva-based Gender Champion. She discusses the links between gender (in)equality and displacement, highlights the need for disaggregated data collection, shares best practices and reflects on climate change as a threat multiplier.


Hannah Reinl

Hello and welcome to the December episode of the IGC podcast. My name is Hannah Reinl, and I’m with the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva.

Today, we are going to talk about Gender Dynamics in Internal Displacement. For that, I am joined by Alexandra Bilak, Director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, in short: IDMC. Alexandra has almost 20 years’ experience in the international non-profit sector, with a focus on research and policy development on displacement in the context of armed conflict, violence, disasters and climate change. Prior to joining the IDMC in Geneva, she spent over a decade working for international NGOs and research institutes in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.

Since becoming Director of the IDMC in 2016, Alexandra has focused on supporting and promoting the sharing of best practice among countries affected by internal displacement. She has also focused on ensuring that internal displacement is addressed as part of global, regional and national policy frameworks spanning prevention and risk reduction, humanitarian action, early recovery and sustainable development. 

Welcome to the IGC Podcast, Alexandra!

Alexandra Bilak

Thank you so much, Hannah. Good to be with you.

Hannah Reinl

So, one of your personal commitments as a Gender Champion this year was to advocate for the more systematic collection of disaggregated data to help improve responses to the differentiated needs of displaced women and girls, and to ensure more targeted actions to address them. The IDMC has actually just published a new report on “Gender Dynamics in Internal Displacement”. Can you share more about the results of this research and maybe also walk us through the specific challenges that individuals of different genders may face during displacement?

Alexandra Bilak

Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you very much for having me. And indeed, as you said, IDMC is really an international monitoring center that is specialised on the topic of internal displacement. And what we know throughout all of our research in general is that all people who are forced to leave their homes, be it as a result of conflicts or violence or disasters, experience some kind of impact, very often a negative one, on their well-being, on their welfare and on their security. In order to provide people with adequate support, it's very important to understand the specific challenges and the specific impacts that different people or groups of people face in these circumstances. We know, for example, that women often have far greater difficulties than men to secure a decent livelihood during and after their displacement. And the same goes for displaced girls, whose education tends to be more negatively impacted than displaced boys.

So overall, our research over the years has shown that displacement tends to amplify pre-existing gender inequalities. It tends to expose people of all genders and sexual orientations to specific risks. So, our latest report has shown that in many internal displacement situations, as I mentioned, displaced girls in particular tend to attend school far less than displaced boys. We looked at the case in particular of Mogadishu in Somalia, where we saw that displaced families, particularly those with lower incomes, were unable to send all of their children to school. And this is where choices have to be made, and even in cases where school itself is free, there are often hidden costs that are associated with education, such as the cost of buying books, pencils, uniforms, school meals, transport, etc. And when they have to choose, families will often send their boys to school and keep the girls at home to help with household chores. And now we saw a clear difference between families with lower incomes and displaced families with higher incomes, where both their boys and their girls were able to attend school in the latter case. 

We also see disproportionate impacts on girls when IDP or internally displaced families are forced to settle in insecure areas and where families there may choose to keep their girls at home because they fear for their security on the way to school or at school itself. So again, here we see that displacement can act as an aggravator of other factors, be they poverty, insecurity, gender inequalities in general, and harmful norms that can impact people and communities who are already the furthest left behind.

But what our research, and what this report also shows, is that, it's not just young girls or women who are negatively affected. We've also seen that men and boys can face specific issues in certain contexts. So, we've looked at, for example, heightened threats to personal safety for displaced men in Ukraine, who not only have to cope with displacement, but also with the impacts of movement restriction and mandatory conscription throughout the country. So, what our report shows is that it's very important to understand these gendered differences so that policymakers can design their policies and their programmes more effectively and can achieve results that are responsive to those differences.

And I think a final finding that our report puts forward is unfortunately the fact that, in many internal displacement contexts, the data that we would need in order to inform these approaches and these policies is generally insufficient. So, data in general on internal displacement is already lacking in many contexts. But disaggregated information on internally displaced people by sex, let alone by age or sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., is far harder to come by. So in that respect our report is also a call for better evidence on these gender dimensions, in order to support a much more targeted response.

Hannah Reinl

Thank you, Alexandra, for illustrating the topic with these very concrete examples and case studies. And maybe already the recommendation also to those who are listening to go and find your report online - and we will also link towards it afterwards. You just already touched on this very relevant question, which is, how can policymakers then leverage the findings that you present and that derive from other research into designing more effective policies and programmes?

Alexandra Bilak

Well indeed, as I said, the first step is really having access to that data and to that analysis in order to plan for much more targeted and gender-responsive approaches. And many examples exist throughout the world of effective policies and programmes that do take into consideration these challenges for IDPs and are able to address them effectively.

And in fact, our report highlights some global as well as some national initiatives that often are community-based or very participatory. So, at the global level, we've seen some important and positive developments in policies since the 1990s that I think show some very encouraging steps towards incorporating gender considerations in overall action on internal displacement. So, we have, from 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that sets out very concrete commitments by governments and other stakeholders to empower women and girls, including those who are displaced. Then at the end of the 1990s, this is very much a landmark document for IDMC, are the guiding principles on internal displacement from 1998 that emphasize very clearly that special efforts have to be made to address the specific needs of displaced women and girls in order to ensure their full and equal access to health, to education and other services that unfortunately tend to be typically lacking in displacement.

And then we have UN Security Council Resolution 1325, we have the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, that all encourage greater participation and empowerment of women who are affected by conflicts and disasters. Now, this is really sort of commitment, broad commitment at the global level. What is interesting to look at, is really how they're implemented at the national level. And again, our report highlights some concrete examples of inclusive policies, so we have positive examples coming from as far as the Pacific in Vanuatu, Bangladesh as well. But unfortunately, we also can see that many countries still lack comprehensive frameworks on internal displacement, let alone frameworks that include gender perspectives.

So, we also see that, when many policy frameworks focus on gender, they tend to focus on the specific needs and potential of women and girls. But they do still overlook people of other genders, so there's still a gap, and there's still a long way to go. But we’re encouraged by the progress that we've seen in a few countries. And, you know, we've seen a lot of interesting examples, for example in South Sudan with initiatives of training taking place for displaced men to encourage them to better understand the effects of gendered power imbalances and really to transform them into true agents of change that can help reduce these inequalities during displacement and after as well. So, I think again our report is a call to action for a continued bridging of this gap and for accelerating the progress that we have seen in certain countries.

Hannah Reinl

Another priority for you, according to your IGC commitments, is building a global evidence base on the different roles that displaced women can play as agents of change, rather than only seeing or portraying them as victims. What are some success stories or best practices that you have come across in that context?

Alexandra Bilak

Yeah, indeed. Well, as you say, for the past couple of years, IDMC has been really focused on not just quantifying the scale of the problem, but also identifying and documenting the extent of solutions. We're really interested in seeing how different governments and other stakeholders have approached the issue across different contexts. And in order to do that, we developed a global repository of good practices, which is also available on our website, in which we present these successful or promising initiatives and we describe what has made them indeed successful.

And so, this latest gender report highlights some of these initiatives, focusing on addressing gender inequalities and risks. And what we find, broadly speaking, and this probably doesn't really come as a surprise, is that initiatives that are inclusive and participatory, meaning that they engage beneficiaries or end users in their design and the implementation and in the monitoring of different interventions, are going to be far more successful than those that don't. So, inclusion and participation are not just nice to have kind of box-ticking exercises. They are also true factors of impact and they can contribute to higher returns on investments, so to speak.

So, one example that we discussed in the report is the very active role that internally displaced women in Colombia have played in different projects. They really are considered true leaders within their communities. They're also, in a sense, agents of liaison for the government and aid providers and they ensure the relevance of operations. They ensure their smooth implementation and they provide this continued feedback loop on successes and challenges to allow for a constant readjustment and adaptation of programmes and ultimately better efficiency year after year. So that's in Colombia, but we've also got examples in, on other continents, in Cameroon for example, where we documented the role of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which advocated for the adoption of Cameroon's 2017 National Action Plan and which contributed significantly to shaping the country's 2018 - 2020 action plan.

So again, I think it's very important, as you said in your question, to not always consider these population groups as victims. Because they're not, on the contrary, they have to be agents of change, and they are the ones who can help inform programmes that are going to be ultimately for them.

Hannah Reinl

Okay, so we're noting down inclusion and participation for more relevant and effective programming. Maybe one last question for you, Alexandra. We're just coming out of COP28, so this is very timely. How do you think that climate change as a potential threat multiplayer will interact with matters of gender and displacement in the future?

Alexandra Bilak

Well, I think climate change is already interacting very visibly with matters of gender and displacement. We see that climate change already acts as an often invisible or hidden cause of displacement, particularly when families are forced to leave their ancestral homes, their livelihoods, because the natural resources that they rely on have died out. But they don't always see or report on climate change as the reason for their move, so they may say that they're moving to make a better living, or because they're facing too many floods or droughts that have made their place of living inhabitable. But when such a movement or such mobility happens, displaced families are, at least temporarily, in a state of limbo. And as with many other situations, women often bear a heavier burden, in the sense that their pre-existing vulnerabilities are going to be exacerbated by the fact that they find themselves in a new and unknown environment and that they have to find new sources of livelihood, while often caring for their dependent family members or taking care of their home. So, we know this, but we also know that climate change acts as a threat multiplier, in the sense that it increases the impact of displacement on communities who are already displaced. So, for instance, internally displaced people who were already struggling to make a living in their new community will often face greater challenges, if this community is facing repeated droughts that lead to widespread food insecurity, for example.

So, alongside this gender report, we've also published earlier this year, in May, our global report on internal displacement, which focused on this relationship between food insecurity and internal displacement, and also put forward several examples of communities coping with this kind of toxic mix or overlapping effects of conflicts, disasters, climate change, and often against the background of low socio-economic development and insecurity. And if you add to this kind of perfect storm the pre-existing vulnerabilities that all IDPs face and the specific challenges of people of different genders, including women, girls, people from sexual minority groups, it's easier to understand why we would argue that policymakers and aid providers have to make every effort they can to tailor and to make their assistance and their plans to IDPs far more bespoke for different genders. Particularly as we know that effects of climate change are going to contribute to higher levels of internal displacement in the future. So, I think, indeed, the outcomes of this year's COP, particularly on loss and damage, are a reminder that when we talk about the losses and damages of climate change, we do need to take into account the mobility aspects of this, but also the gender dimensions of this mobility that we're seeing globally.

Hannah Reinl

I feel like we're just getting started and yet, we're out of time. Alexandra, thank you so much for joining us today and for helping us untangle these complex gender dynamics in internal displacement. Thanks for joining.

Alexandra Bilak

Thank you very much.

To access the IDMC report "Gender Dynamics in Internal Displacement", please click HERE