International Women's Day: UNHCR reaffirms commitment to gender equality

News Stories, 6 March 2009

© UNHCR/J.Rae
Women and Men Unite: Female and male refugees working together in a camp in Nepal.

GENEVA, March 6 (UNHCR) International Women's Day falls on Sunday this year, but many UNHCR offices were celebrating early on Friday as the head of the organization reaffirmed the refugee agency's continuing commitment to gender equality as a human right.

This year's UN theme for the day, "Women and men united to end violence against women," has been adapted by UNHCR to highlight the right of gender equality with the slogan: "It begins with me, it begins with you, it begins with us."

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, in a special message to staff, noted that the global theme was at the heart of the agency's mandate for protection and the centre of its work.

"In situations of forced displacement, no one is spared from deprivation and the threat of violence but women and girls suffer disproportionately. Violence, and particularly sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV], is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary conflict," he noted.

"A fuller response to SGBV, therefore, remains one of our top protection priorities, addressed within the context of our age, gender and diversity mainstreaming strategy. The pursuit of gender equality through targeted actions empowering women and girls remains a fundamental aspect of UNHCR's work," Guterres added.

"Achieving gender equality in our daily life and work is no longer an aspiration, but an obligation," said Naoko Obi, head of the Community Development Gender Equity and Children department at UNHCR, adding that men and women needed to work together to achieve equality.

The theme of women and men uniting for gender equality was highlighted at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva on Friday, where a short video showed male and female staff members talking about women's rights and gender equality.

Other activities included the display of a People Chain artwork dedicated to the diversity of individuals' backgrounds, ages and sex, and the building of a Witness Wall for the collection of messages on gender equality.

Other UNHCR offices around the world had a wide range of activities and celebrations planned for Friday and the weekend to mark International Women's Day.

"International Women's Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go. I urge all of us to remember that it begins with me, it begins with you, it begins with us," High Commissioner Guterres concluded.

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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

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

Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6Play video

Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6

Stories of refugee women who have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and are engaged to end this practice. These women explain their experiences of flight, asylum and integration in the EU.
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Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

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South Sudan: Bringing Aid to MalakalPlay video

South Sudan: Bringing Aid to Malakal

UNHCR and its partners have been able to start handing out aid items to thousands of people in the South Sudan town of Malakal, where insecurity and widespread looting had prevented distribution. There are many women, children and older people among the displaced.