International Women's Day: UNHCR chief stresses need for equality

News Stories, 8 March 2010

© UNHCR/B.Heger
On International Women's Day, UNHCR remembers women such as this Somali refugee in Dadaab, north-east Kenya.

GENEVA, March 8 (UNHCR) As UNHCR offices around the world marked International Women's Day on Monday, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said it was vital that all people of concern to the agency, male and female, are given equal opportunities and are able to realize their individual rights on an equal basis.

Guterres, in a special message to staff, added that this year's theme, Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All, was "a principle UNHCR has already committed to implementing through, for example, its strategy for Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming."

The High Commissioner, noting that nearly half of all people uprooted by conflict are female, said inequality between women and men, and discrimination on the basis of sex occurs during all stages of the displacement cycle. "Moreover, difficulties accessing and enjoying rights are likely to be worsened during displacement leading to even greater gender inequality," he added.

Guterres stressed that UNHCR was also dedicated to ensuring women's equality within the organization. He said UNHCR's three-year-old policy on gender equity reflected the organization's determination to achieve gender parity in staffing.

UNHCR staff in offices and refugee camps around the world have arranged various programmes for today and the rest of the week to commemorate International Women's Day. In the agency's Geneva headquarters, female staff were selling handicrafts made by Iraqi refugees in Damascus for programmes aimed at the prevention and response to sexual violence.

Later this week, Ugandan refugee Kate Ofwono from Kakuma camp in north-west Kenya is due to take part with Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller in a panel discussion in Geneva entitled, "Listen to Women for Change." Ofwono will also show a film she made, with UNHCR's support, about her life and challenges in Kakuma and how she has made use of the opportunities available for skills development and employment.

Luisa Cremonese, a senior UNHCR gender specialist who is helping organize the events in Geneva, said forced displacement often led to many human rights violations against women, both during flight and in camps. She added that in some cases abuse occured "even when they return home and the rights they have gained as refugees are no longer respected."

Meanwhile, in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad UNHCR and a local partner, Struggle for Change (SACH), convened a special International Women's Day meeting on Monday of local and refugee women to discuss the day's theme of equal rights and equal opportunities.

A 48-year-old Somali woman, Hadja, told the gathering that she had been abducted and held by a militia group for four years in her homeland before managing to escape. "I was subjected to a lot of physical and mental violence and the numerous scars on various part of my body are a reminder of the pain and hurt I had to endure," said Hadja, who has been living in Islamabad for the past three years.

Her husband, a former UN driver, was killed by militiamen in Somalia along with her father and eldest son. She said that she had been warned that she would be killed if she returned to Somalia because Hadja had refused to marry her brother-in-law. She lives in Pakistan with one of her daughters, but her three other children remain in Africa.

Hadja survives largely on an allowance of 4,500 Pakistani rupees (US$52) a month from SACH. She has a refugee card from UNHCR, but no right to work or permanent residence. Despite this, Hadja's strength has made her a leader among the Somali women in Islamabad.

Sharing her story at Monday's event, she said that "in spite of the traumatic experience and violence inflicted on me, I still have a will to live and hope for the future." She added that her "passion is to assist the weak, the needy and the voiceless."

Humaira, a 21-year-old refugee from neighbouring Afghanistan, told the meeting she had come to Pakistan when she was only four years old. "I feel Pakistan is my home country. I speak Urdu very well," said the maths teacher. "As a woman, I feel I can strive harder toward a better future," she said.

In Bogota, UNHCR marked the day by launching a video, "Sin Nombre (Nameless)," which tells the story of displaced Colombian women. The groups Mesa Mujer and Armed Conflict, meanwhile, presented their ninth annual report on socio-political violence against females in Colombia, which shows forcibly displaced women to be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

In Venezuela, UNHCR was taking part in an International Women' Day fair at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. The UNHCR office in Zulia was scheduled to make a presentation on international law at a conference on women's rights, with the focus on indigenous communities in the region.

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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.

Advocacy

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

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

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Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat campPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat camp

Concluding a visit to Iraq, UNHCR chief António Guterres met with Syrian refugees in Arbat camp in the Kurdistan region. Guterres noted the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises, but urged the international community not to forget about Syria, "the mega protracted crisis of our times."
Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced IraqisPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced Iraqis

This week UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is visiting Iraq to meet with families displaced by conflict in recent weeks. After listening to accounts of their difficult journeys to safety, Guterres called for more support to help deal with the crisis. He will also visit some of the 300,000 Syrian refugees currently living in camps in northern Iraq.