Refugee and Returnee Women: Skills Acquired in Exile and their Application in Peacetime


Vázquez, Norma. 1999. Refugee and Returnee Women: Skills Acquired in Exile and their Application in Peacetime. Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women.

Author: Norma Vázquez


The large number of displaced and refugee women in El Salvador is a direct result of the government's indiscriminate repression of the country's poor, peasant population during the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, many people who feared for their lives were forced to flee the country. The women who spent most of the war in the Colomoncagua and Mesa Grande refugee camps in Honduras recall their experience as a catalyst for important life changes. The refugee camps, established in response to a humanitarian disaster, turned women's lives upside down, lives that had been characterized by isolation, exclusive dedication to household chores and care of the family, and strict compliance with a moral code based on obedience to masculine authority. Besieged by both the Honduran and the Salvadoran armies, but supported by a number of international and national organizations, refugee women developed abilities in the public realm that they had never before needed for their survival. Despite these advances, the women never questioned their traditional role in the home during their time in the camps, or during repatriation. New activities were simply integrated with old responsibilities. Somewhat paradoxically, the women have come to view the changes that occurred during the time of exile in a positive light, and to think of the return to El Salvador and onset of peace as events that--while important and desirable--made them take a step backward on the road to empowerment. The experience of women throughout the war-asylum-repatriation-peace cycle forms a kind of kaleidoscope, characterized by nostalgia for what they learned and experienced while in the camps, and by simultaneous recognition that peace and freedom are basic rights that are inherent to any long-term of social transformation.



“On their return to El Salvador...the women took with them the communal systems of education, medical care, and production that had enabled them to be self-sufficient in the resettlement camps. This process of adopting new systems was critical because, upon returning to El Salvador, the women no longer had the support of the international organizations that had guaranteed their survival in the refugee camps.” (6)

“It became clear that following repatriation, women had lost their new roles and reverted to traditionally submissive lives.” (6)

Topics: Class, Displacement & Migration, Refugees, Refugee/IDP Camps, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Masculinism, Households, International Organizations, Livelihoods, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction Regions: Americas, Central America Countries: El Salvador

Year: 1999

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