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UNHCR attends landmark meeting on discrimination against women

News Stories, 24 July 2009

© UNHCR/L.Foster
A group of female refugees from Central African Republic in south-east Cameroon. Forcibly displaced and displaced women and girls are at risk of discrimination.

NEW YORK, United States, July 24 (UNHCR) A landmark meeting in New York, co-organized by the UN refugee agency, has given important impetus to efforts to eradicate discrimination against forcibly displaced and stateless females, including rape, domestic violence and other abuses.

The July 16-17 seminar, the first of its kind, brought together officials from UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) with 15 independent experts from around the world who serve on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The meeting was called specifically to look at how the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women a de facto international bill of rights for women can be used to protect forcibly displaced and stateless women. CEDAW is meeting until August 7 to review countries' implementation of the Convention.

A number of important so-called "general recommendations" and "commitments" were agreed upon with the CEDAW members to increase awareness about discrimination against women of concern and to bolster the Convention's power to protect and help them through better use of existing reporting and complaint mechanisms.

"This is a breakthrough," said UNHCR Chief Protection Policy and Legal Adviser Oldrich Andrysek, who attended the meeting. This was echoed by Pierre Bertrand, director of UNHCR's New York office, who told the opening session, "This seminar is a milestone in our collective efforts to ensure that the rights of displaced and stateless women and girls are fully respected."

Others stressed the importance of governments and international organizations in ensuring progress. "The violations that women experience . . . will never be dealt with appropriately until justice issues receive sufficient attention both nationally and internationally," said Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of OHCHR's New York office.

The seminar participants also heard powerful and sometimes harrowing testimonies from former refugees from Bhutan, Liberia, Mongolia and Zimbabwe as well as two internally displaced women from Chechnya and Kenya. "Discrimination against women is everywhere," said one of the women, a widow who suffered abuse.

"The fact that refugee women gave testimonies and that the often forgotten situation of refugee and stateless women was discussed in detail allowed us to spotlight and deal with the problems women face," UNHCR's Andrysek noted.

Forcibly displaced women and girls, and women seeking to integrate into new societies or reintegrate in post-conflict countries, are frequent victims of multiple forms of discrimination and sexual violence. Yet there remains a persistent culture of denial, neglect and impunity around this growing problem.




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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