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Refugee women gain more recognition, support in Brazil

News Stories, 22 August 2007

© UNHCR/V.Graziano
Refugees Dragica Sebescen (left) and Lilia Vargas at the Second National Conference on Policies for Women. The meeting ended on Tuesday in Brasilia.

BRASILIA, Brazil, August 22 (UNHCR) In a sign of their growing visibility and support in Brazil, refugee delegates took part in the recent Second National Conference on Policies for Women here in the Brazilian capital.

Support for female refugees was included among the final resolutions of the August 17-21 conference, which was attended by more than 2,500 delegates from around the country. The meeting passed a resolution to include women refugees' issues among Brazil's national policies for women.

"To participate in this conference is an important step for us as refugees in Brazil," said Lilia Vargas. "I am learning about our rights and about the kind of public policies that we can be included in," added the Colombian, who fled to Brazil from her homeland in 2004 after receiving threats from armed groups because of her human rights activism.

"I fought 22 years for women's rights [in Colombia] and now, as a refugee, I can see that we women have to keep on facing an intense struggle against discrimination and fight for our rights," she added after attending the meeting, which came three years after the inaugural event.

Vargas and ethnic Serb refugee Dragica Sebescen were invited to attend by Secretary for Women's Affairs Nilcéia Freire. The conference focused on the struggle for gender equality and specific women's rights.

Sebescen, who arrived in Brazil from then Yugoslavia in 1992, stressed the importance of the conference in promoting the rights of Brazilian women and supporting female refugees. "We need to be heard and seen more, and this kind of conference will help us," she said.

Brazil has been paying more attention to refugee issues in recent years and is one of only a handful of countries in South America to offer resettlement places to vulnerable refugees, including women at risk.

The presence of Vargas and Sebescen at the women's conference is a further sign of Brazil's positive approach towards refugees, whose public visibility has been rising here.

UNHCR, meanwhile, works with public and private partners to protect, assist and advise single mother refugees who have arrived in Brazil with their children. Both Vargas and Sebescen benefited from such programmes and retain close ties with UNHCR.

The UN refugee agency facilitates access to care centres for infants while their mothers are out working or looking for work. UNHCR and its partners also offer professional training and capacity-building to give single mothers a greater chance of finding employment and becoming self reliant.

"Although refugees and asylum seekers have access to public health and education, job opportunities are scarce and a lot of refugees require professional qualification to increase their possibilities to get a wage-earning job. It is harder for women and we must have a special focus in our programmes to address their specific needs," said Luis Varese, UNHCR's representative in Brazil.

Both Vargas and Sebescen got started with help from UNHCR. Vargas studied hairdressing and now runs her own beauty salon, while Sebescen makes a living from sewing and from teaching modelling.

According to official figures, there are about 3,550 recognized refugees in Brazil from dozens of countries. Almost 80 percent are from Africa.

By Valéria Graziano in Brasilia, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

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.

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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