Hesperian Health Guides

Basic Needs

In many communities, women are responsible for providing most of their families’ basic needs: they grow most of the food, prepare it, collect water, manage the home, keep the living space clean, and try to maintain the family’s health. Away from the home, refugee and displaced women must suddenly depend on outside help to meet basic needs. Often this help is not adequate. Some displaced women may not have any outside help, so meeting basic needs is even more of a problem.

a woman cooking under a shelter near a tent where a large family lives


Many refugees and displaced women do not have enough food to eat before they flee or during their journey. When they arrive at a new settlement, there still may not be enough food. Or there may not be enough different kinds of food to provide a nutritious diet.

Malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death for refugee and displaced women.

You may be able to improve your diet if you:

  • get involved in food distribution. Food should be given directly to women, because men may not be as familiar with the family’s needs. Also, women are more likely to feed their families with the food they receive than trade it for weapons or alcohol.

a man handing a sack of beans from a truck to a woman while other people wait in line

  • demand that women get the same amount of food as men and eat at the same time.
  • fight for extra food for pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and women who are malnourished or sick.
  • make sure that women have cooking pots and utensils.
  • share cooking tasks with other women. Even if food is prepared in a central place, women can stay involved. This will give them some control over their family’s diet.
Emergency Food Distribution
Even in emergency situations, food distribution should involve women. This honors the important role women have had in food management. In Kenya, for example, Oxfam has tried to strengthen traditional social roles by distributing food directly to women. Food is distributed in an open place, overseen by an elected committee of elders. Women are encouraged to give their opinions about what is being done. This kind of food distribution will continue until the local food supply improves.

Water and fuel

Refugee and displaced women often have limited water and cooking fuel. Sometimes water and fuel must be collected away from the camp in an unsafe area. Or the water may be unclean and will make people sick if they drink it. All these problems make women’s lives more difficult, because they are responsible for washing and cooking for themselves and their families.

3 women carrying firewood and hatchets as they walk together

These things can help:

  • Learn how to purify your water.
  • Ask organizations that provide support and aid for containers that are not too heavy to carry water.
  • Ask those in charge to patrol places where water and fuel are collected, to make sure they remain safe and women can get to them. When you go for water or fuel, go with other people.

Protection from sexual violence

Sexual violence is a violation of human rights

More Information
violence against women

Rape and sexual violence are common when people are displaced. This happens because:

  • guards, government authorities, and workers may demand sexual favors in exchange for food, protection, legal papers, and other help.
  • if the area is too crowded, women may be forced to stay with strangers, or even with people who have been enemies. Women who are forced to stay among strangers are in greater danger.
  • male refugees, who have lost opportunities they had at home, often become angry and bored. These problems are made worse when men see women taking on new responsibilities. Since men may have weapons with them, they may act violently toward women. This is more common if the men use alcohol or drugs.
  • people in a nearby community may attack.

There are many ways to prevent attacks:

a woman speaking to two others as they walk to a faraway latrine
I wish the latrines were closer to the camp. It isn't safe to go here alone after dark.
  • Women should try to stay with family and friends. Single women and girls without adults looking after them should stay in a safe place that is separate from men.

You may risk attack if you have to go a long distance for food, water, fuel, or to use sanitation facilities.

  • Men without much to do should be encouraged to begin activities like skills training, sports, or cultural activities.
  • Women should be directly in charge of distributing basic resources, like food, water, and fuel, so they do not have to negotiate for their basic needs.
  • The camp should be arranged so that latrines and other facilities for basic needs are close by and well lit. Women should also demand more protection at night, including women guards.
  • Try to arrange meetings for men and women to discuss preventing sexual violence. Make sure everyone understands the dangers. Protection against violence can be included in other programs, such as health and nutrition meetings.
  • Ask for education about alcohol and drug misuse.

If you are attacked:

  • Request a physical exam right away from a woman health worker. You may be able to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV infection, by taking medicine. If you might be pregnant, be sure to discuss ALL your options—abortion, adoption, or keeping the baby—with a health worker.
  • If it seems safe to do so, report the attack. Officials may be required to investigate. Remember that you do not have to answer any questions you do not want to, especially about your past sexual history.
  • Talk over what happened with a trained mental health worker. This will help you realize you are not to blame for the attack and that many other people have overcome such experiences. If no mental health worker is available, see the chapter on “Mental Health.”
  • In some cultures, rape is seen as a woman’s failure to guard her virginity or her dignity in marriage. If your family is angry at you or ashamed that this happened, they may need counseling also.
  • If you can, you may want to move to a safer place, away from your attacker. Request that your family or friends come also, if you want them with you.

This page was updated:23 Oct 2019