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

Over the next two weeks, UNHCR offices across the world will be participating in the 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women, an international campaign that begins today and brings together people and organizations working to eliminate all forms of violence against women.

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

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.