Research at the interface with political activism

Students of Freie Universität Berlin organized a research seminar on the situation of women* in refugee camps in Berlin in cooperation with the International Women’s Space (IWS). Recently the research results were published in an anthology.

von Miriam Bräu und Lena Nahrwold

Foto: Privat
Mind-Map made during the workshop. Photo: private

„ My scar caused by the cesarean section got infected because I was not able to shower every day. The midwife said I should try to wash the scar every day with warm water and not walk so much, but that is not possible. I have to wait in line at the showers, at the »Spendenausgabe« [distribution of donations] with my children “

It was in an emergency accommodation camp in Berlin that Sahar from Afghanistan gave us this account of her life circumstances there. Her experiences are differ to some extent from those of male* inhabitants in the camp. But even though the female* perspectives on their living conditions can differ greatly from male* refugees, women* are rarely given the opportunity to speak about the specific challenges that they face. In the present there is little social scientific data available informing us about the situation of women* living in German refugee camps. Knowing and understanding more about women*’s experiences and struggles within the asylum system is of vital importance in order to make useful political claims and provide effective support where it is needed and wanted. This aim – to better understand women*’s current situations in refugee camps in Berlin – brought together the NGO International Women’s Space (IWS) with a group of B.A. students and two lecturers from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Together, we organized a research seminar, which took place in the winter term of 2015/16.

In the context of the orientation week in spring 2015 at FU Berlin, the university group “Refugee Uni-Strike Committee” organised a workshop in cooperation with the IWS titled “The Situation of Female Refugees in Germany”. The IWS has long been engaged in activist work in support of women* who have fled their country of origin and come to Germany. The NGO is a self-proclaimed group of “migrant and refugee women coming to Germany from former colonized countries as well as women without that experience coming together to build a base and a common struggle against the effects of Fortress Europe“. During the 17 month long occupation of the Gerhard Hauptmann School in Berlin, they fought to establish a space for women* inside the school. After the residents’ eviction in July 2014, the IWS continued their work through engagement with women* living in refugee camps and through activism on a wider political level.

As students in Germany we hold many privileges; one of these is the access to a multitude of resources. Our concern was how we could use these resources for our political work efficiently. It was important for us to not only reflect on our privileged position as students, but to actively use this position for political purposes. Following the event at FU we talked with the IWS about possibilities of student engagement in order to support their activism. The activists of IWS pointed out that it was crucial for their work to obtain more information about the concrete reality women* in refugee camps in Berlin were facing. Therefore, they asked us to make use of our time capacities that go along with a flexible university life and of our season tickets for public transport in order to collect data.

Since a lot of the members of the “Strike Committee” were students of social and cultural anthropology and this subject offers useful methodological and theoretical perspectives for such a project, we decided to approach our Institute and organize a research seminar in the winter term 2015. Within the discipline, methods such as participant observation, participatory research and open interviews are central. Furthermore it leaves room for reflexivity and a close engagement with people’s life worlds as well as the unique perspectives and experiences they have. Eventually, 30 students of the Institute participated in the research project and we were able to incorporate our political work into our university life, which led to greater time flexibility. Since the IWS works in English we decided to also use English as working language and consequently wrote our research reports at the end of term in English as well. During the whole process we were in constant conversation with the IWS in order to exchange experiences and to make sure that the project was headed in the right direction.

Our research took place in five different refugee camps in Berlin which housed between 200 and 1148 residents each. In selecting the camps, we focused on different types of accommodation for refugees, such as centrally versus non-centrally located, as well as emergency versus more established camps. In five teams of three to six students each, we collected data about the women*’s social interactions, safety and privacy as well as health and care within the camps. Furthermore, we focused on issues of administration and registration and tried to find out about the demands and needs the women* living in the camps had.

In the following summer term 2016 we got together in a smaller group with our lecturers and the IWS to publish the research results in a book and thus make it accessible to more people. The book encompasses five research reports of the different camps and a summary of our results as well as concrete claims on how to improve the situation of the women*. For example, there is great need for exclusively female* spaces where women* can withdraw from the usually male* dominated spaces in order to breastfeed, change clothes, remove the headscarf or just come to rest. Furthermore, women* are often excluded from offers like language courses when there is no reliable child care (because this is often seen as the sole responsibility of the woman*) or when literacy is required which was often only received by men* in the home countries. There should be a greater consideration of mechanisms that exclude refugee women* in order to provide effective support.

Comic: Privat
Comic: Private

Even after the publication of the book our project is still not finalized and we are time and again in dialogue over what should happen worth the results and how they could be used so that refugee women* can profit from them. We sent the book to several governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as activists who are concerned with the situation of refugees in Germany so that they can use the data for their work. Additionally we are currently working on other formats in which the results of our research can be distributed.

Gender* definition and application: We use women/woman, men/man, male/female with the symbol * (‘gender star’). This is to highlight how gender is socially constructed and involves more varieties than identified as clearly either male or female (cisgender).

The summarized research results can be found here.

Contact us:

Here you can order the book at Weißenseeverlag.