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The dilemma that faces some female Colombian refugees

Telling the Human Story, 14 May 2014

© UNHCR/B.Baloch
Many refugees from Colombia, including women and children, cross into Esmeraldas province in northern Ecuador. Some end up in rundown neighbourhood's like this one, where they can face difficulties finding work and getting by.

ESMERALDAS, Ecuador, May 14 (UNHCR) Alba* fled from her home in Colombia a year ago, fearing for her life after receiving death threats and suffering sexual violence from members of an illegal armed group. But in Ecuador she has been forced as a last resort into a new kind of hell, selling herself for sex to survive.

When the asylum-seeker arrived in northern Ecuador's Esmeraldas province, she struggled to find the permanent employment she desperately needed to provide for herself and her two children, including a two-year-old daughter who needed an operation for a dislocated hip.

In desperation, she went to work in a brothel in Esmeraldas, where she feared for her safety and was constantly worried that her family would find out. After being badly beaten by a regular customer, she left her children with her sister and moved to a brothel in Pastaza province, across the Andes In the east of the country.

"If I filed a complaint my mother, sister and children would know how I earned a living," she said softly, head bowed in shame. She wants to get out. "I do not know what to do. I do not want to keep using my body," she told UNHCR, which has been working with partners to find solutions for women like Alba.

The dilemma that Alba faced in Ecuador is shared by many others fleeing to Esmeraldas. Of the 55,000 registered Colombian refugees in Ecuador, many are women heads of household, who must work to keep their families alive and together. Moreover, many find it a challenge to access the asylum system. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination, and they struggle to find employment. Some end up as commercial sexual workers, though precise figures are not available.

These women and other victims of sexual violence are of concern to UNHCR. "Survival sex is the cruellest aspect of exploitation to which refugee women in Ecuador are exposed on a daily basis. Combatting this type of violation of the rights of refugee women is definitely the biggest challenge for us," said Óscar Sánchez-Piñeiro, head of the UNHCR office in Esmeraldas. "We know that it is impossible to move forward to reach equality, development, and peace without protecting refugee women from this serious form of violence."

For the past year, UNHCR has been working with government, NGOs and international organizations, to help those forced to become commercial sex workers as well as supporting measures to counter sexual violence and fight discrimination. This includes strengthening legal frameworks and enforcing mechanisms that focus on women's rights as well as spreading awareness among refugee women and girls about these rights.

The strategy includes funding income-generation projects that help women become independent and self-sufficient and less likely to become sex workers or enter dependent relationships where they have to provide sex in exchange for a home and food. UNHCR is also leading the effort to create a shelter for female victims of violence where vocational training would also be offered.

But despite the efforts of the private-public alliance, the challenges are huge. Data is woefully inadequate and mostly anecdotal, which makes any meaningful analysis and extrapolation virtually impossible. Meanwhile, some communities seem to be in denial about the existence and scope of the problem. Victims can be ostracized.

"We cannot empower women to seek the justice they deserve because we are unable to decide where or how to strengthen justice systems," UNHCR's Sánchez-Piñeiro noted. He said new mechanisms were needed to help women like Alba and more efforts were needed to empower women so that they could do more to protect their own rights. "We can no longer prevaricate."

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Mileidy Capurro in Esmeraldas, Ecuador

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Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Statelessness and Women

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