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Ending violence against refugee women is a top priority, says Guterres

News Stories, 25 November 2005

© UNHCR/R.Goldstein-Rodríguez
Sierra Leonean police officers and aid workers in a training session on gender-based violence issues.

GENEVA, November 25 (UNHCR) Violence is a common thread in the lives of refugees and displaced people all over the world. War, torture and persecution provide the grim background to their flight, while displacement and exile often engender more violence. For women refugees, the situation can be even worse than it is for men, and on Friday UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said combatting violence against refugee women was one of his top priorities.

Violence against women is closely connected to complex social conditions such as poverty, lack of education, gender inequality, child mortality, maternal ill-health and HIV/AIDS. The United Nations Population Fund has found that violence kills as many women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer; that worldwide, one in three women has been beaten, coerced into unwanted sexual relations, or abused; and that roughly 80 per cent of the 800,000 people trafficked across borders each year are women and girls.

"Violence against women," the organizers of the 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women say, "is a pandemic, one that transcends the bounds of geography, race, culture, class and religion."

When families are dispersed, communities broken and social networks destroyed, women and girls are even more vulnerable to this pandemic. Whether it is in large camps or in very poor urban areas, refugee women are especially at risk, a reality that UNHCR says it recognizes and is trying to address.

"We know that they are constantly subject to violence, abuse and exploitation in many operations around the world," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a message to all UNHCR staff on Friday. "Discussions with women and girls across all regions, be it Colombia, Darfur, Bangladesh, [the former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia or Pakistan unfortunately confirm that in addition to rape and sexual abuse, girls can be harassed and subject to violence as they go to school, collect firewood or go to work, as well as through traditional harmful practices and domestic violence."

Four years ago, the UN refugee agency outlined its "Five Commitments to Refugee Women", which included developing strategies to end violence against women; individual registration of men and women; and participation in the distribution of food and other relief items. The number one commitment was to encourage the full participation of women in leadership positions in all refugee committees.

Full participation of women is not an easy target to achieve and a recent UNHCR survey shows that progress has been uneven. Men continue to hold most of the leadership positions in the majority of refugee camps. Perhaps even more worryingly, staff in the field report that even when the target of 50% is reached, men often remain in control of the decision-making process.

The survey also tried to assess whether any progress has been made to reduce incidents of sexual violence against women. One clear pattern emerging from the reported data is that cases of harassment and rape in camps continue to be highest when women and girls have to collect firewood and water.

"Ending violence against refugee, returnee and internally displaced women and girls is one of my top priorities," Guterres said, adding that he counted on "each UNHCR staff member to work towards preventing, responding to and eliminating sexual and gender-based violence."

UNHCR has been working with host countries to address these problems. Women police officers are now present in some camps, while in some countries for example in Sierra Leone and Uganda police officers have received training to better understand and deal with violence against women.

There have been a number of other positive developments, like in Afghanistan, where UNHCR's involvement with women-at-risk was driven by the urgent need to protect unaccompanied women returning from countries of asylum. The refugee agency has developed a network of partners working with women and is supporting safe houses and resource centres across the country. Areas that need further development include the provision of legal and psycho-social assistance for women-at-risk, as well as campaigns to address specific forms of violence against women.

While the victims of sexual and gender-based violence are overwhelmingly female, refugee children both boys and girls are also very vulnerable. In southern Africa, UNHCR supported a research project with adolescent girls and boys, who were fully involved in identifying the ways in which they could be at risk and developing strategies to keep safe. "We need someone to whom we can talk to and who will listen to us," was their top recommendation.

UNHCR offices around the world are marking the 16 Days of Activism with activities and awareness-raising programmes. These are being organized in partnership with refugee communities, civil society, NGOs, governments and other UN agencies. Events include youth panel discussions on how to address gender violence in Nepal; a radio talk show in Sierra Leone; the launch of a booklet on elimination of violence in Croatia; and a television broadcast in Sri Lanka.




The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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.

Refugee women

Related news stories to Unit plan for ages 15-18 in Civic Education: Refugee women

UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls

This Handbook describes some of the protection challenges faced by women and girls of concern to UNHCR and outlines various strategies to be adopted with partners to tackle these challenges.
First edition, published January 2008

UNHCR policy on refugee women and guidelines on their protection

An assessment of ten years of implementation

UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women

Introduction, general, the basic principle: mainstreaming/integration, organizational goals, policy objectives, operational objectives.

Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons - Guidelines for Prevention and Response

Guidelines offering practical advice on how to design strategies and carry out activities aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

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

Jordan: Winter Camp VisitPlay video

Jordan: Winter Camp Visit

Syrian refugees living in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan are still trying to overcome the damage done by the storm that hit the region last week. On his second day visiting Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the camp to see the impact of the damage. He was also able to hand them the key to their new home, a caravan that arrived part of a convoy to help those living in tents at the camp.
Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin campPlay video

Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin camp

Conflict in Myanmar's Kachin state has displaced tens of thousands. In the town of Laiza, UNHCR is helping women in Hpun Lum Yang camp to learn tailoring skills as part of a pilot project to foster cohesion among IDP women in the camp and help them find solutions for the practical problems they and their community face.
UNHCR: An Appeal for AfricaPlay video

UNHCR: An Appeal for Africa

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called for more attention and help for African nations dealing with new and old displacements.