21.05.2022, Girls and Women on the Run

Keynote given by Maria von Welser
On Saturday 21st May 2022/ 2.30 p.m.

Dear Ladies, and, are there Gentlemen as well, ???
dear Gentlemen

Thanks for the wonderful invitation to give a short keynote about the very sad or better: horrible story about Girls and Women on the run. Worldwide are 84 Million people on escape, and about 80 percent of them: women and children. Please don´t forget this figure when I tell you now the storys about refugees I have seen.

I think we are all depressed about the actual war in the Ucraine. Startet by the aggressor Russia. About 10 Million people are now on the run in the country, and minimum 5 Million women and children left their home-country. They went mainly to Poland, but about 600 000 are now in Germany. They are save here and Germany helps where it is able to do so.and the population is extremely friendly and supportive. The refugees here are - save. But their treatment is different to that of other refugees. Men between 18 and 60 are in Ucrania not allowed to leave the country. So the escaped women and children are save, but totally alone. After a long and dangerous way through the horrible war in their homeland. With a heavy backpack on their shoulders, and anxious children in their hands.
Can we image, how this feels? Freezing, anxious about the male relatives at home, and: no hygenic support during their escape. And that´s your topic today. Menstrual health and hygiene. Its important that you figure it out. Because we never mentioned it really, and because we are all not used to a war situation since 1945….the end of World War II. We felt so comfortable in 77 years of peace. With bandages and tampons where and when we needed it….

But 2015 war came closer. Syria is not far away from Europe. And 1,5 Million refugees walked about the Balcan Route to Europe, mainly to Germany. I remember these pictures in the TV and wondered: only men? Where are the women? And as a journalist I started to reseach. And I found out that because of the monthly reduction of the money of the World Food Progamme from 26 Dollar to 13 Dollars Millions of refugees from Syria, now living in Jordania, in Lebanon, in Turkey, decided to send the, so called, strong men on the dangerous way to Europe. Hoping, that they could, after their arrival, manage to get their wives, their children as well to Germany. Which didn´t work….

First trip: To Lebanon. A small and extremely poor country. 5,8 Million inhabitants- and 1,5 Million refugees. They all live far below the poverty line. The poverty line of the Libanese country. I visited the so called Bekaa valley. Close to the Syrian border. Where the mainly female refugees try to survive. In ITS, informal tented settlements. Constructed of cardboards, paper, plastic, some wood and if they get it, also some concrete for the floor.
NGOrganisations try to support the refugees with food, and some hygienic articles for the women and girls. But its rare, and talking about these essential things was not always easy. They are –beside all normal dramas of a refugee life – ashamed to mention, what they need so desperately. Till today, nothing changed there and the war in Syria is now in its 11th year. And after an extremely hot summer a cold and snowy winter makes surviving there more and more difficult. And the so called resettlement-programme doesn´t work. The UNHCR asks for 75 000 such resettlement places in other countries…but: Europe closes the borders….

I travelled then to Jordania. A country with 10 Million inhabitants. 800 000 registered refugees. Jordania suffers of shjortage of water and of an extremely high unemployment rate. Compared to other countries, they took over the double amount of refugees. But the situation is similar to that of Lebanon: 80 per Cent of the refugees live in poverty. Mainly women and children. They have 3 Dollars a day for the whole family. All are dependent on the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But: there is not enough help coming from New York although. The refugees are not allowed to work, children do most of the jobs. And they work during the night. The owners of plants argue, the electricity is then cheaper. IT´S THE Same argument as in Lebanon….Children work and earn a little bit to survive.
Like in Lebanon, the hygienic needs of women and girls were not an issue during my talks and interviews: From 3 Dollar a day for the whole family they can´t buy any bandages, or tampons. They try to help themselves with old fabrics, cutted into small stripes. And every month they try to wash and clean it…

Next stop: Turkey. A country with 73 Million inhabitants and now about four Million refugees. Mainly from Syria, the neighbouring country. At the beginning, Turkey showed great hospitality and opened the arms for the Syrian refugees. But now, after Corona, and the war in Ucraine, the atmosphere changed. Syrian refugees are no longer welcome. They have a so called temporary protection. They are save against deportation, have access to the health system, to schools, universities and social help. Refugees, who want to leave Turkey, are not from Syria, they come from Afghanistan, from Iran, and Iraque. And that´s why I want to travel with you now to Lesbos…. From Turkey 9 kilometers away at the closest point.

I visited the small Greek island exactly at the time, when the European Union signed a contract with Turkey: the country got 34 Billions of Euro to stop the refugee track over the sea. They came every night, 2000. 2400 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or from Africa. Hoping to continue after a short stopover on Lesbos to Europe, or better Greece, there starting the long and dangerous walk to Germany.
But Greece destroyed these plans. .Actually there are 19 300 refugees in the new Moria camp, the old one burnt down in 2020. It was once constructed for only 6 thousand people. Then you can image the situation there.
The pope visited the island last year and spoke deeply shoked about a “shipwreck of the civilization”. The Greek authorities constructed new camps, surrounded by an iron fence, closed every night. No one is allowed to leave the island- and no county in Europe is helping the refugees. Of whom are two third women and children.
The NGO´S left the island. There is no need anymore during the night to be on standby at the beaches, to help thousands of shivering refugees out of the wobbling rubber boats. Now not more than perhaps twenty come, and they are as well immediately taken into the camps. For years.
“A shipwreck of civilization….”

I wrote a book about the described situations, “No shelter- nowhere”. But I don´t want to forget the women and girls in Afghanistan. A country nearly double of the size of Germany, with 33 Million inhabitants. Since last August governed by the Taliban. Actual news report about the horrible situation of the women and girls there: they are not allowed to work, to walk in the streets without the Burka and only with a male person on their side, girls can not go to school starting the age of 13. Which is mostly the time when girls start to become a woman, with monthly bleeding. They are not allowed to travel alone, are not allowed to be medically treated by a male doctor. And there are no female doctors, because women can´t study, and work in that profession. It is the country with the highest maternal mortality worldwide. And the highest rate of babys who don´t survive the first week of their life. I was there, before the Taliban took over, and there was so much hope, when I talked to women in Kabul or in the countryside. The situation would improve, everybody was hopeful. But in every talk women mentioned: let´s hope that Taliban never ever take over again…and know: it happened.
We shouldn´t forget them. Especially now- due to the war in Ucraine, there is a horrible lack of food worldwide…and 40 per cent of the Afghans suffer of hunger.

What can we do? How to cope with the situation of women worldwide? Rotary is doing a lot, especially the Rotary Action Group. If everybody where ever is helping a woman, a girl, this could be a great start. Let´s start and thank you for listening.