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Shedding new light on refugee women's safety in Bangladesh

News Stories, 19 February 2009

© UNHCR/S.Kritsanavarin
Women carry water from wells at Kutupalong camp. Solar-powered lighting will help improve womens' safety at water collection points.

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh, February 19 (UNHCR) Taking a shower or going to the toilet in safety and privacy is such a basic right that billions of people all over the world never think twice about it.

But for thousands of girls and women in two refugee camps in Bangladesh, it was an exercise fraught with hazard for more than a decade. Modesty kept them from venturing to the communal bath houses or latrines in broad daylight, but night-time forays too often left them prey to harassment and even rape.

Today, all that has changed thanks to the installation of 61 solar-powered lights in Nayapara Camp and 43 in Kutupalong Camp. The two sites near Cox's Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh are together home to 28,000 registered Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar who have been in exile since 1992.

"It's much better at night," says 30-year-old refugee Khaleda Begum in Kutupalong Camp. "The light is much better than before and I feel better about using the bathroom and toilet at night."

Installed by UNHCR at a cost of US$117,000, the lights to illuminate the previously pitch-dark camp are monitored by the refugees themselves, two of whom have been trained by the contractor to do basic maintenance in each camp.

They are part of a series of substantial improvements the UN refugee agency has been able to accomplish in partnership with the Bangladeshi government, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. As more new shelters are built in Nayapara Camp, more new solar lights will be installed as well.

The first focus was on bath houses, latrines and water collection points to improve women's safety. Other public areas have now been lit to allow refugees to move more freely throughout the camp at night. Many students are taking the opportunity to visit private tutors' homes to continue their studies in the evening.

And there's been a pay-off that no one in the West could ever have imagined. In the past, wild elephants occasionally rampaged through the camps and even killed three refugees in Kutupalong a few years ago.

"After the solar lighting was installed, there haven't been any more elephant attacks," reports Selim Reza Chowdhury, UNHCR field assistant in Kutupalong Camp.

By Kitty McKinsey in Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh

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How UNHCR Helps Women

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Women

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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Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin campPlay video

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