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Check-ups and rights awareness for women at Venezuelan border

News Stories, 31 March 2004

© UNHCR/A.Simancas
Lining up for medical check-ups on Women's Health Day in Santa Barbara, Venezuela.

SANTA BARBARA, Venezuela (UNHCR) More than 100 women, many of them victims of the Colombian conflict, recently received health care and related courses on Women's Health Day in the refugee-hosting community of Santa Barbara in Zulia state, north-western Venezuela.

Organised by the UN refugee agency and the Venezuelan Red Cross, the March 17 event provided gynaecological care as well as courses on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention to the border community. Given that approximately 60 percent of the population in this area is of special concern to UNHCR, the agency also spoke to the participants about refugee rights and Venezuela's asylum application procedure.

"In the last few years, the area south of Lake Maracaibo has received large numbers of Colombians fleeing the armed conflict in their homeland. To avoid attracting attention to themselves, these people keep out of sight and thus have little access to information about their right to seek refugee status in Venezuela," explained Vemund Olsen, UNHCR field officer in Machiques, Zulia state. "This type of event is very important because it brings information about UNHCR and its mission to those people who may need our help."

Explaining that this was an opportunity they did not want to miss, the women waited patiently for their check-up in the heavy afternoon heat. "Doctors who came before never remembered us, women. Imagine how costly and yet how important this is for us," said 38-year-old Alejandra as her name was called.

As the day went on, more and more women arrived, many with their families. "I have three children and since giving birth to my five-year-old, I have not been back to see this type of doctor," said Maria, 35. "And explaining to us about AIDS, that's also much needed because no one talks to us about these things."

The day-long event took place in the headquarters of the Santa Barbara Fire Department and counted on the support of the local Mayor's Office in the Municipality of Colon.

"The collaboration of all of these organisations has been very important because, although we do not share the same mission, we do have the same vision, which is to help those who are most in need," said Carlos Montiel, who heads the Venezuelan Red Cross in Zulia state. "Working with UNHCR has enabled us to expand our efforts in border communities and together, we have organised a number of medical assistance days over the last two years."

The three UNHCR field offices in the Venezuelan border states of Apure, Táchira and Zulia are working closely with implementing partners to provide protection and assistance to victims of the Colombian conflict. The recent Women's Health Day was just one of over 76 health, education and community development projects carried out by UNHCR in refugee-hosting communities along the Venezuelan border. In 2003, the projects benefited a total of 26,324 individuals, more than half of them women.

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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.

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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.

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Health crisis in South Sudan

There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

Health crisis in South Sudan

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