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International Women's Day: Peanut butter, pottery and sewing help empower refugee women

News Stories, 6 March 2009

© UNHCR/C.Opile
Sudanese refugees attend a tailoring course in Kakuma camp.

KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya, March 6 (UNHCR) The 15 Sudanese woman are a study in concentration, bent over their busy sewing machines in a classroom at the Kakuma Refugee camp in north-west Kenya.

They are learning a skill that could one day be their passport to economic independence and security, just like hundreds of other Sudanese refugee women who have taken part in programmes organized by UNHCR to prepare them for life back in South Sudan.

Others in the camp are taking part in pottery classes, handicrafts manufacture, beauty salon training and tailoring. One enterprising group of 50 women, almost half of them from the local Turkana community, have begun marketing the peanut butter that they learned how to make on a UNHCR course at Kakuma.

"Although most people here are not used to eating peanut butter, we are marketing it and encouraging them to use it in soup, porridge and bread because it is very sweet," said Johan Akot, a widow who fled to Kenya to escape an attack on her home in South Sudan by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious Ugandan rebel group.

The peanut butter project has been a great success since it was launched last December by UNHCR and its partners as an income generation project to help vulnerable women. Pottery and handicrafts projects were also introduced for the female refugees last year.

The cooperative of refugee and local women involved have been selling the peanut butter to camp residents as well as staff from other UN aid agencies and non-governmental organizations. Akot said it had been such a success that her share of the profits was enough to purchase food and clothing.

Margaret Machek, a mother of four taking part in the sewing project, hopes that she can emulate the success of the peanut butter sisterhood. Machek originates from Chukudum in the South Sudan state of Eastern Equatoria and she lost an eye while fleeing to Kenya. "I was running away after our village was attacked and a stick penetrated my eye," she explained, while adding that her husband had been killed in the assault.

Machek's affliction means she has to concentrate much harder than others taking part in the course. But she is a determined woman and relishes the chance to learn a skill that will help her become independent when she returns home.

Four years after one of Africa's longest running civil wars ended in January 2005, more than 300,000 registered refugees from South Sudan have returned home, including some 145,000 with the direct help of the UN refugee agency.

But the peace remains fragile in South Sudan and people are returning to areas devastated by years of conflict and neglect. UNHCR is also involved in hundreds of reintegration projects aimed at rapidly developing areas of high return and making repatriation sustainable.

The skills-learning and income generation programmes in Kakuma, conducted with partners such as the Lutheran World Federation and the National Council of Churches in Kenya, are part of that process.

They help prepare women for a new life by giving them skills that can support them economically. And they don't just cater to the Sudanese refugees in the camp, but also Ugandans, Ethiopians and others from the region.

"Many women have become very dependent on the aid provided in the camp by humanitarian agencies," noted UNHCR Community Services Officer Menbere Dawt. "This is a problem we need to address and we hope that once these women have gained the skills needed to stand on their own two feet, they will be more confident about restarting their lives back in Sudan."

By Emmanuel Nyabera in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

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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

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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.

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