Education, leadership crucial for refugee girls and women, says UNHCR on International Women's Day

Education is key in preparing girls to protect themselves and manage their lives. It also lays the foundation for girls to aspire to and acquire leadership positions and participate in decision-making, said Acting High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin as she marked the annual event today.

A returnee woman in Maungdaw, Myanmar, undergoing literacy training.   © UNHCR/A.Hollmann

GENEVA, March 8 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is marking International Women's Day today with activities involving refugee women worldwide, with a special focus on refugee girls and women in education and leadership.

In her speech commemorating the annual March 8 event, Acting High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin said, "This day provides us with an occasion to review the progress and persisting challenges related to gender equality mainstreaming and women's empowerment."

She noted that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had opened the current Beijing+10 Review and Appraisal Conference in New York by saying, "There is no other tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women." The conference, which runs from February 28 to March 11, is organised by the UN Commission on the Status of Women to review the implementation of the Declaration and Programme of Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Building on this year's International Women's Day theme of "Gender Equality: Building a More Secure Future", UNHCR is focusing on education and leadership for refugee women and girls. "Education is key in preparing girls to protect themselves and manage their lives," said Chamberlin. "It also lays the foundation for girls to aspire for and acquire leadership positions and participate in decision-making."

The Acting High Commissioner also announced the creation of the UNHCR Gender Team Award to be presented in June. The award will go to three country operations that have taken innovative activities to promote women's and girls' access to education and leadership.

Meanwhile, a plethora of activities are taking place around the world to mark International Women's Day, ranging from skills training competitions to women's health workshops, seminars on girls' education, discussions on the role of women returnees, and even attempts by men to ease women's burden.

In Moscow, UNHCR organised a conference allowing Afghan, Iraqi and Nigerian refugee women and asylum seekers to discuss their return options. The discussion provided them with information and views to decide for themselves, as well as a network of contacts and support that they don't usually get.

"Many refugee women are isolated even from their own nationals as they are dispersed across the city and do not have well-developed community structures. It is of extreme importance for them to hear opinions on issues that concern them so much," said Karima Saoudyn, an Afghan activist in Moscow.

A hairdressing competition was also held in the Russian capital, with participants from the UNHCR-sponsored hairdressing course, part of the agency's skills training project to help refugee and asylum seeker women become more self-reliant.

In Apartadó, Colombia, UNHCR and its partners are holding workshops on cancer prevention and reproductive health for internally displaced women and women from host communities. Teachers in UNHCR's Pedagogy and Child Protection project are also attending workshops on women's and girls' rights. A play on women's rights, a women's football match and two concerts are also being organised.

In Uganda, UNHCR is conducting sensitisation seminars on women's rights, girls' education and sexual and gender-based violence. Sierra Leone's Kissy Town refugee settlement will hold a panel discussion on empowering women for sustainable development in sectors like education, employment, food security, health and HIV/AIDS.

Kenya's Kakuma camp is organising a talk for refugee women to express their views on the possibility of returning to south Sudan and the roles they expect to play back home. Dadaab camp is running an HIV/AIDS-awareness campaign and presenting awards to people who have supported girls' education in the refugee camps.

In Nepal, winners of a poster competition for December's "16 days of elimination of violence against women" campaign will receive T-shirts with the slogans: "You educate a woman, you educate a community", and "Men and women are two wheels of a chariot". UNHCR Nepal and the Bhutanese Refugee Women Forum will also give speeches on women's empowerment, while the Children's Forum will perform dramas on domestic violence and child marriage.

The annual conference for refugee women held in Moscow included a contest for hairdressing, part of a skills-training project to help refugee women become more self-reliant.  © UNHCR/V.Sokolova

In Argentina, the spotlight was turned on refugee women who run UNHCR-funded micro-credit projects when actor Osvaldo Laport visited and praised them for their courage to integrate into a new society.

Traditional roles were reversed in Guiglo, western Côte d'Ivoire, under a campaign to lessen the burden on refugee women. The men swept the town's main road and held a cooking contest, while the women played handball in a match between refugee women and aid workers.

Refugees in Chad, Liberia and Tanzania celebrated International Women's Day with street parades, cultural and sports activities, while a public forum in Japan and a joint-UN stall in Mexico helped to raise awareness of women's rights and contributions to society.