UNHCR welcomes Council of Europe convention on combatting violence against women

News Stories, 1 August 2014

© CouncilofEurope/E.Wuibaux
Front view of the main building of the Council of Europe.

STRASBOURG, France, August 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has warmly welcomed the entry into force of a Council of Europe convention aimed at preventing and countering violence against women and domestic violence.

The Istanbul Convention, which came into force on Friday, requires state parties to ensure that gender-based violence against women may be recognized as a form of persecution and to ensure that the grounds for asylum listed in the 1951 Refugee Convention are interpreted in a gender-sensitive manner. This is the first time that gender-related persecution is explicitly mentioned in an international convention.

"The Istanbul Convention is designed to become a global protection tool because non-European states can also accede to the convention," said Gert Westerveen, UNHCR's representative to the Council of Europe. "All states should accede to it and implement it," he added.

The convention requires state parties to adopt legislative and practical measures to prevent and combat violence against women, as well as to coordinate measures through comprehensive policies. It establishes an obligation to introduce gender-sensitive procedures, guidelines and support services in the asylum process.

Some states, when applying the 1951 Refugee Convention, fail to acknowledge a gender-sensitive dimension, which may result in inconsistent asylum decisions and deprive many women and girls of international protection.

The Istanbul Convention also reiterates the obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement requiring that countries adopt measures to ensure that female survivors of violence are not returned to any country where their lives would be at risk or where they may be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) affects mostly women and girls, and the forcibly displaced are especially at risk. Many of their asylum claims involve fear of gender-based persecution, including trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation, forced marriage, forced sterilization, female genital mutilation, the threat of "honour" crimes, sexual violence and rape.

In June, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie co-chaired a global summit in London, United Kingdom, on ending sexual violence in conflict, helping to put a spotlight on the issue and galvanize public support. Last year, some 12,000 SGBV incidents were reported to UNHCR in 43 countries. One can assume much higher numbers given the many obstacles faced by survivors in reporting their ordeal.

By Jutta Seidel and Gert Westerveen in Strasbourg, France




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.


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

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