16 Days of Activism: UNHCR chief pledges new initiatives to end violence against women

News Stories, 25 November 2011

© UNHCR/D.Marie
Female refugees from Sudan at a camp in eastern Chad. Many refugee women and girls are vulnerable to violence.

GENEVA, November 25 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Friday reaffirmed his agency's commitment to the prevention of violence against displaced women and girls while stressing the scale of the problem and pledging a new initiative in 2012 to address it.

"We have a long way to go," he told staff gathered in the atrium of UNHCR's headquarters building in Geneva at the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an international campaign originating from the first Women's Global Leadership Institute in 1991.

In a separate message to mark the campaign, Guterres also outlined progress in several areas since UNHCR launched the High Commissioner's Five Commitments to Refugee Women in 2001, when the agency had only just issued its first guidance on combatting sexual and gender-based violence.

"Women were hardly represented in camp management. Registration, documentation and food distribution were not individual, but given to the head of household usually a man. Sanitary materials were not part of the standard assistance package," he wrote, while adding: "We have come a long way since then, but our achievements against the Five Commitments also highlight how much remains to be done.

Last year, among other relevant statistics, 83 per cent of people of concern living in refugee camps who reported sexual and gender-based violence cases were referred for assistance. In urban settings, this was the case for 97 per cent of reported cases. Meanwhile, men and women were represented equally on one third of refugee camp committees; more than half of refugee women and girls received sanitary materials; and in the majority of refugee camps, women comprised at least half of the food distribution representatives.

"Hundreds of thousands of women are subjected to brutal acts of violence every year, and to help prevent this from happening must remain one of our highest priorities," the High Commissioner said. He told staff that special projects will be launched in 2012 to help prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. "It's a corporate priority," he added.

"The 16 Days of Activism are an opportunity to underscore our commitment, but it is clear that our response personal as much as collective cannot be confined only to these 16 days," Guterres said.

UNHCR offices around are organizing activities to mark this year's campaign, whose theme is: "From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World." The focus will be on combatting violence against women and girls both outside and inside their homes, highlighting the positive role that men and boys can play in this endeavour.

Staff will also be doing their part to oppose violence against women through an interactive art activity, creating peace quilt homes. These will be constructed with individually-designed quilt squares depicting words and images that people will associate with the idea of peace in the home.

The 16 Days of Activism will run through to International Human Rights Day on December 10. As in past years, UNHCR will also be highlighting the work of the White Ribbon Campaign, an initiative begun by men to encourage their male peers to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. People are invited to wear a white ribbon, signifying this pledge.




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.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), September 2005


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

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

International Women's Day 2013

Gender equality remains a distant goal for many women and girls around the world, particularly those who are forcibly displaced or stateless. Multiple forms of discrimination hamper their enjoyment of basic rights: sexual and gender-based violence persists in brutal forms, girls and women struggle to access education and livelihoods opportunities, and women's voices are often powerless to influence decisions that affect their lives. Displaced women often end up alone, or as single parents, battling to make ends meet. Girls who become separated or lose their families during conflict are especially vulnerable to abuse.

On International Women's Day, UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to fight for women's empowerment and gender equality. In all regions of the world we are working to support refugee women's participation and leadership in camp committees and community structures, so they can assume greater control over their lives. We have also intensified our efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on emergencies, including by improving access to justice for survivors. Significantly, we are increasingly working with men and boys, in addition to women and girls, to bring an end to dangerous cycles of violence and promote gender equality.

These photographs pay tribute to forcibly displaced women and girls around the world. They include images of women and girls from some of today's major displacement crises, including Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Sudan.

International Women's Day 2013

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