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We must act to empower women, says Lubbers at UNHCR gender awards

News Stories, 5 December 2003

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers with award winners (from left) Nemia Temporal, Aruni Arulsubramaniam, Linda Awanis and Dzana Popovic.

GENEVA, Dec 5 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers on Friday gave 20 awards to refugees, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UNHCR staff for their work in building the capacities of refugee women and promoting gender equality, but cautioned that despite the progress made so far, there was still need for more work.

"Together we have been pushing this rock, and it has moved quite a lot but it is not at the top yet," he said in symbolic reference to the collective effort being made by UNHCR, its partners and refugees to bring about gender equality.

Presiding over the ceremony for the "2003 UNHCR Award for the Promotion of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Refugee Women" at the Geneva headquarters of UNHCR, Lubbers recognised the efforts of six NGOs working with refugees or internally displaced people, five refugee groups/individuals, eight UNHCR staff and the entire UNHCR Ghana office team.

"We should give public recognition for their work. It is stimulating for them and for others," Lubbers said in remarks at Friday's ceremony, the second since the inception of the award scheme in 2002.

The UNHCR chief noted that one of the obstacles in the joint effort to build the skills and capacities of refugee women was violence against them, which he said prevented refugee women from living full lives in safety and security.

"Violence undermines women's personal, social and economic advancement and prevents us from supporting their choices and capacities for durable solutions," said the High Commissioner, who also called for more action to combat violence against women.

"We must act act to inform, act to support, act to empower and act to remove all the barriers which make women vulnerable to violence."

The award-giving ceremony coincides with a world-wide campaign dubbed "16 days of activism to end violence against women", which is held every year from November 25 December 10 to step up efforts against gender violence.

The winners of this year's UNHCR awards were drawn from Africa, North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

On hand to receive the certificates of recognition were Linda Awanis, an Iraqi refugee and President of the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria; and Dzana Popovic, a former refugee from Sarajevo and social worker with the Organisation for Aid to Refugees which is based in the Czech capital, Prague. Two UNHCR staff members Aruni Arulsubramaniam from the agency's office in Sri Lanka and Nemia Temporal, based in Geneva, were also present. Another recipient of the award Mary Diaz, the head of the US-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children expressed her appreciation in a pre-taped video address.

The number of award recipients has doubled from 10 last year to 20 this year to reflect the growing efforts by a wide variety of actors to educate refugee women about their rights, build their skills and ensure better representation and involvement of refugee women in key activities.

In her acceptance statement, Linda Awanis thanked UNHCR for involving refugees, in particular refugee women, in the search for solutions to their problems.

"Thank you for trusting us and for believing that your efforts would not be wasted on us," the Iraqi refugee said. "Thank you also to all the men who found the courage to work as volunteers in a female organisation even though it was against their tradition and culture."

Nemia Temporal, who received the award for her work as UNHCR's Regional Advisor for Women in the Europe region, described her work as both "challenging and rewarding".

Challenging, she said, because the success of her work lay in a change of attitudes, mindsets, and even the organisation's policies. Rewarding, she added, because she knew that through her work she could change the lives of refugee women: "We know we have done a good job when refugee women can take a lead role in promoting their own rights."

Other recipients of the 2003 award are: Narayana Gedara Kamalawathie (Sri Lanka), Vera Roubalova (Czech Republic), Bonga Women's Association (Ethiopia), Somali Women's Concern (North-East Somalia), Chitra Maunaguru (Sri Lanka), Hawo Abdi Mohamed (Somali refugee, Kenya), Teresa Musole (Angolan government), Aruni Arulsubramaniam (UNHCR, Sri Lanka), Shabnam Besharat (UNHCR, Iran), Mary Flomo Hall (UNHCR, Liberia), Linnie Kesselly (UNHCR, Uganda), Margaria Vargas (UNHCR, Indonesia), Alexina Rusere (UNHCR, Sierra Leone), Nyorovai Whande (UNHCR, Geneva).




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.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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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