Congolese Refugee "Women at Risk" in U.S. Need Trauma-Related Services

The U.S. government must do more to address the needs of Congolese refugee "women at risk" through trauma-related services and social support, according to a report by the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin and the Department of Sociology and Social Work at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The report issued recommendations for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which is responsible for resettling 50,000 Congolese refugees in the United States by 2019. The recommendations are based on a study of refugee women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have resettled in the United States after decades of unrest in their homeland.

"The women who participated in our study experienced multiple traumas and hardship," said Noël Busch-Armendariz, lead author of the report and director of IDVSA in The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. "This study provides empirical evidence to inform the tremendous efforts already underway to meet the needs of Congolese female refugees."

Although the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program emphasizes economic integration through job placement, the report finds that many refugee women had unmet needs for trauma-related services, social support and longer-time financial support, said IDVSA researcher and project director Karin Wachter. The study was partially funded by a $15,000 grant from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with 57 Congolese refugee women and resettlement service providers in Lexington, Kentucky; San Antonio, Texas; and Salt Lake City, Utah, which have received high numbers of Congolese refugee women during the past decade.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has endured nearly two decades of civil war and chronic instability. Millions of people have died from disease and malnutrition as a result of the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of women and children have been assaulted, tortured and sexually terrorized. In 2012 alone, the UNHCR reported that 2.3 million people had been displaced within the country, and more than 70,000 had fled across the border into Rwanda and Uganda.

All interviewees had been resettled as "women at risk," a UNHCR resettlement category originally created to prioritize the processing of particularly vulnerable female refugees who could not return to their home country. Overall, 75 percent of the interviewed refugees were employed or full-time students. Nearly all had children, and the great majority were single heads of household. They all reported having experienced significant trauma, including sexual violence and losing loved ones before coming to the United States.

"Access to long-term services to address trauma and loss is essential for this population," said Maura B. Nsonwu, the lead researcher from North Carolina AandT. "The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program could leverage local resources for these services, such as domestic violence and sexual assault centers in cities who receive Congolese refugees."

The study also found that the women felt an overall sense of physical safety and food security in the United States. Nonetheless, they felt socially isolated and expressed the need for companionship and assistance with parenting and child care. The report recommends that the UNHCR and the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program prioritize reunification of "women at risk" with adult relatives who could provide the needed companionship and support.