UNHCR backs 16 days of opposition to violence against women

News Stories, 25 November 2008

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone has his hand scanned in support of the 16 Days of Activism.

GENEVA, November 25 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday said UNHCR needs to pay urgent and close attention to the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

"Sexual and gender-based violence is a major scourge, continuing to affect many persons of concern to UNHCR, especially women and girls," Guterres noted in a message to staff to mark the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women, an international campaign originating from the first Women's Global Leadership Institute in 1991.

This year's theme is, "Human Rights for Women & Human Rights for All: Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60."

Guterres wrote that during a trip last December to the troubled Congolese province of North Kivu, he had been struck by the appalling stories told by displaced women he met who had survived SGBV.

"Their personal tragedies were compounded by this horrible scar, by having to live in constant fear of repeated attacks and reprisals, and in some cases, by ostracization by their families and communities. This is unacceptable," he added. Women have been subject to SGBV during the latest violence in North Kivu, which has displaced some 250,000 people since August.

The High Commissioner said the annual 16 Days of Activism, which end on International Human Rights Day (December 10), provided an opportunity to raise awareness "on this pervasive global problem."

Guterres said there had been some positive developments in 2008, including the UN Security Council's adoption of Resolution 1820, which recognizes sexual violence as a self-standing security issue for the first time. The High Commissioner also noted that he had allocated US$1.5 million this year to special projects in 14 countries to strengthen existing UNHCR efforts to prevent and respond to SGBV.

UNHCR offices around the world will be will be organizing a wide range of events and activities over the next 16 days to raise awareness and demonstrate their commitment to the elimination of SGBV. In Geneva, the programme started a day early when Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone launched an initiative dubbed "Hands United Against Harm."

Staff in the headquarters building are being encouraged to have coloured prints of their scanned hands displayed on banners around the atrium as a commitment against SGBV. Many other activities are planned in Geneva, including a panel discussion on SGBV on Tuesday and an art exhibition next week to highlight the problem of female genital mutilation.

"We as an organization have a very special interest in the issue of violence against women because refugee women are affected more than any other women's population group in the world," Johnstone said on Monday, adding: "It's incumbent on us to really take a lead in trying to fight violence against women."

UNHCR staff, especially men, are being encouraged in Geneva and other offices to wear white ribbons to symbolize support for establishing a world in which women and girls can live in peace and dignity. Wearing a white ribbon is a personal pledge never to commit, condone nor remain silent about violence against women.

Several field offices will run their own versions of the "Hands United Against Harm" campaign. In the Mozambican capital, Maputo, visitors to UNHCR are being encouraged to put a white handprint on a black canvas background, which will be displayed in the office. In Kenya, people will be invited on December 5 to leave their handprints on a "pledge wall" to show their support for the campaign against violence.

Activities run by other offices include cultural activities, discussions, essay competitions about violence and how it can be curbed. In Botswana's Dukwi Refugee Camp, the UN refugee agency will help run a children's drama contest on Wednesday. The young refugee thespians will use drama to examine a host of issues, including domestic violence, SGBV and HIV/AIDS. The top two groups will vie in a final round on December 5.

In nearby Angola, refugee women living in the Sungui settlement in Bengo province have pledged to donate fruit and vegetables during the 16 Days to refugees in the Viana settlement who have no access to agricultural land.

There will also be several events, including photo and art exhibitions, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women continue to suffer abuse and violence. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a report to the UN Security Council covering the period from July to November, said government forces and rebel soldiers in North Kivu had carried out a wide range of human rights abuses, including rape.




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.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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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