UNHCR completes series of regional dialogues with women in anniversary year

News Stories, 25 May 2011

© UNHCR/I.Van Horssen
Participants in the Finland dialogue.

HELSINKI, Finland, May 25 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has completed a unique and moving series of regional dialogues with women that began in India last November and wrapped up in Finland this week.

The seven dialogue meetings brought together hundreds of women in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas and were aimed at giving refugee women a voice and an opportunity to influence change during UNHCR's landmark 60th year.

The final dialogue was held from last Friday to Monday in the Finnish capital Helsinki, where the experience of refugee women is strikingly different from those living in the other countries that hosted meetings of women and men India, Colombia, Jordan, Uganda, Thailand and Zambia.

Yet despite the freedoms and security that refugee women and girls enjoy in Finland, participants at the gathering told of the challenges and difficulties that they face in what is an alien environment for most of them.

"Imagine a woman who has suffered trauma and rape, who is separated from her family and still worries about her children or husband in a camp, who does not speak a word of Finnish and has no idea about the local culture and society," asked one of the 25 women taking part. "She is lost beyond words when she arrives here," the Sri Lankan lady added.

Another participant, Ivanka, who arrived in Finland in 1992 after fleeing her home in the Balkans, said it was hardest at the beginning when refugees had to wait in reception centres for months or even years for their papers and the right to reside in the Nordic country. She said she had found it difficult to integrate.

She referred to the isolation and loneliness she felt "trying to learn the language, to understand the society, to be accepted. To deal with the hope of ever returning home, and then the sadness that this might never be the case."

But she overcame the hurdles and is a stronger person for it. She talked of "the healing" and added that, "Now, after so many years, I feel grounded and well equipped to help others who are only starting."

Ivanka now speaks Finnish, Swedish and English on top of her mother tongue. For the past four years she has worked for the Adult Education Centre, which provides orientation courses for newly arrived asylum-seekers and refugees. "I felt that with my background and experience, I could help and really guide people who arrive here and feel lost."

Finland, a country of 5 million inhabitants, has an annual resettlement quote of 750 refugees. In addition, the country provides asylum and protection to a large number of asylum-seekers every year. Between 2006 and 2010, over 17,000 people sought asylum. During the same period the average overall recognition rate was around 63 per cent. According to the Finnish Ministry of Interior, the country faces challenges placing refugees in some municipalities that worry about extra costs. Racism in recent years has also become a bigger problem.

"The negative attitudes of some people in society are a worry to many Finns, but especially to immigrants," Mina from Iran told participants. "We need to fight hard to prove that we can offer added value and not be a burden to this society."

The other dialogues have been equally lively, thoughtful and pertinent. Each meeting has had its own unique flavour, but all have helped to highlight the problems and challenges that women and girls face after being forced from their homes by violence or persecution.

Recommendations from the dialogues will feed into a ministerial-level meeting to be held in Geneva in December 2011.

By Astrid van Genderen Stort in Helsinki, Finland




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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