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Q&A: Peering beyond the burqa to support Afghan women

News Stories, 5 October 2007

© UNHCR/D.Khan
Lynda Lim, UN Volunteer and UNHCR Community Services Officer, at work in Quetta.

QUETTA, Pakistan, October 5 (UNHCR) Lynda Lim has worked with refugees in her native Malaysia. Currently a community services officer with UNHCR in the city of Quetta in south-west Pakistan's Balochistan province, the UN Volunteer braves late-night blasts and bumpy rides to address women's issues in conservative Afghan communities. She spoke recently to UNHCR Senior Public Information Assistant Babar Baloch. Excerpts from the interview:

Has your field experience prepared you for Quetta?

Quetta is very different from my previous field experiences. Before I came, I was told about the very conservative atmosphere where women have to be appropriately dressed and covered; to be prepared for limited mobility due to the cultural and security situation. But I did not expect it to be as conservative as this. Being a woman, I find it strange when handshakes with local men are not permitted. I should not be seen walking on streets alone and must be accompanied by a man. Another shock is the sporadic bomb blasts that constantly awaken me in the middle of the night.

Describe your typical working day.

As a community services officer, my role is to address the broad protection needs of and risks faced by Afghans, focusing on the female-headed households and children who lack community support, and ensuring that their rights to basic medical services, education, water and food are adequately addressed.

The refugee camps are between two and seven hours' drive from the Quetta office on bumpy and dusty roads. My first stop when I get to a camp is the Basic Health Unit (BHU). I talk to the doctors to find out about the services, medicines and the trends in diseases. The BHU also functions like a community centre where one can access information about all the happenings in the camp.

Most Afghan women do not have the freedom to walk around the camp as it is inappropriate for them to be seen in public. They face multiple burdens and gender discrimination, and have limited access to information and discussion of these issues. Most girls are not allowed to attend school. The BHU is one of the very few places they are allowed to visit. As a woman, I have the added advantage of having direct access to them, though it takes them a while to open up. We also try to sensitize refugee men, particularly the male community leaders, by helping them to see and understand the importance of sending their girls to schools, and to recognize and respect the rights and value of every woman.

What are some of your main achievements and continuing challenges?

Working among refugees gives me a day-to-day sense of achievement. But I realize there are constraints on how much we can help them. Issues like sexual and gender-based violence are taboo in the Afghan refugee community. Speaking about their trauma puts victims at a greater risk. Many survivors do not report their cases as they may be seen by the community as bringing disgrace to their family. Therefore, it is important for us to make sure our intervention does not re-traumatize the survivor though insensitive assistance.

I worked with UNHCR's partners to reactivate a mechanism for reporting and responding to such cases in Balochistan's camps. There have been small victories for instance, there was a woman who was badly abused by her husband. There was no way out for her, but even then it took all her courage to report it to UNHCR partners who were responsible for providing help. She finally got a divorce and now lives peacefully with her relatives. We've crossed some barriers, but there is still a long way to go and we have to keep developing capacities and raising awareness among the communities.

Reduced funding is another challenge, especially when working in a protracted refugee setting. Resources are spread thin in our programme and we have to find ways to spend our limited resources on many pressing needs of the refugees.

Nonetheless, I like the complexities of UNHCR's work in prevention, protection, relief and to some extent, development. But there are costs, as we are always at the forefront of humanitarian crises and often face security constraints.

What have you learnt from the refugees?

It's impossible to be untouched by the strength and resilience of Afghan women against all odds. I am taken by a handful of Afghan women whom I have encountered, who live from hand to mouth but even then have a strong sense of hope. I am also impressed by the strong community support among Afghan refugees. It is amazing to see the support to widows, divorcees, orphans, elderly, physically and mentally challenged people in camps. One would think that displacement would severely affect communal bonds, but what I observe among the Afghan refugees is just the opposite.

I've also seen for myself that refugees are capable people who contribute to the host community through business and production. It is misleading to perceive them as passive recipients of humanitarian aid.

What do you see as the way out for Afghans in Pakistan?

There is no quick and easy solution. To me, the central issue is to identify the different categories of Afghans within the 2 million who have registered recently. For those who do not have any protection concerns to return to Afghanistan, gradual and voluntary repatriation can be an option after a careful assessment of the situation, to ensure that conditions of safety and dignity can be met. For those who face obstacles to return after 2009 [when the Pakistan government's Proof of Registration card expires], UNHCR must work with the two governments and international community to find other durable solutions.




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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Croatia: Sunday Train Arrivals

On Sunday a train of 1800 refugees and migrants made their way north from the town of Tovarnik on Croatia's Serbian border. They disembarked at Cakovec just south of Slovenia. Most of the people are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. Their route to Western Europe has been stalled due to the closing of Hungarian borders. Now the people have changed their path that takes through Slovenia. Croatia granted passage to over 10,000 refugees this weekend. Croatian authorities asked Slovenia to take 5000 refugees and migrants per day. Slovenia agreed to take half that number. More than a thousand of desperate people are being backed up as result, with more expected to arrive later Monday.
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