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"Invisible", but refugee women play key integration role

News Stories, 9 April 2003

DUBLIN, Ireland (UNHCR) Sarah is a "seasoned" refugee, having fled for her life twice in the last 20 years. But when it comes to public recognition, she feels that refugee women like herself are often invisible.

In the 1980s, her Tutsi family escaped the civil war in Rwanda and sought refuge in Uganda, where she was later naturalised. She married at a young age, but as a result of her husband's political activities, was "harassed and threatened" by the authorities in Uganda, prompting her to flee again.

She and her husband arrived in Ireland in early 2001 and applied for asylum. Within seven months, they were granted refugee status and were able to reunite with the three children they had left behind in Uganda.

Sarah is adamant she is as much a refugee as her husband, and that her fear of persecution is just as great based on the political opinions imputed to her and the fact that she had become the target of authorities seeking information on him. However, she laments, her passport only recognises her as the wife of a refugee, evidence of the fact that women refugees are often too invisible.

Still, Sarah is glad to be in Ireland, where she feels safe. "As a refugee, you basically have the rights of a citizen," she says, reflecting the positive environment for integration in the country.

But she is also aware of challenges that remain, such as the media's indiscriminate use of the terms "refugee" and "asylum seeker", often with misleading or negative connotations.

In 2000, Ireland introduced a policy for refugee integration, but steps to introduce practical integration programmes for refugees have been limited. Sarah says the government "gives you rights but never tells you where to go. You have sleepless nights waiting for your refugee status. And after you get it, you have sleepless nights not knowing what to do."

Refugee women have a key role to play, she says. Attending a conference on refugee women for International Women's Day on March 8 in Ireland's second-largest city of Cork, she had a strong message for her fellow refugee women, urging them to "find themselves again, their old confidence and their value in the community."

For integration to succeed, she added, refugee women must contribute to their new communities so that "they can contribute to themselves, their families, and live a better life."

By Steven O'Brien
UNHCR Ireland




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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