Colombia: court decision on increased protection for displaced women

Briefing Notes, 27 May 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 27 May 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR welcomes a decision Friday by Colombia's Constitutional Court, which ruled that displaced women are particularly vulnerable and ordered the government to create 13 programmes for their protection, and prioritize them for access to emergency humanitarian assistance. The Court also ordered direct protection for 600 displaced women and asked the country's attorney-general to investigate several cases of sexual and gender-based violence.

The ruling came after months of hearings during which displaced women and organizations working on their behalf, including UNHCR, outlined the situation and risks this group faces. Displaced women form around 50 percent of the total displaced population, double the number of displaced men.

The Court identified a disproportionate impact of the country's conflict upon women, as well as ten factors creating special vulnerability including the risks of sexual violence, sexual exploitation or sexual abuse, recruitment of their children by armed groups, becoming targets if they have personal relations with members of armed groups, and the increased risk of losing their land. Discrimination against indigenous and Afro-Colombian women was also identified as a risk.

Programmes to prevent sexual violence against displaced women, protection of displaced women's' health, facilitation of access to land for women, and improved access to education, health and income generation were ordered to be created within three months.

We have offered technical assistance for the development of the new programmes based on the guidelines for the protection of displaced women designed jointly by UNHCR and the government's Office for Equity Towards Women.

We also welcome the approval of a new law, Law 1190, protecting the rights of displaced persons in Colombia which was passed by the two chambers of the Colombian Congress with cross-party support, and includes mechanisms to improve the implementation of policies favouring displaced persons, including increased coordination between local and national authorities and participation of the private sector.

The law will reinforce the implementation of a law in 1997 which acknowledged for the first time the specific rights of Colombia's displaced people and created policies to protect those rights. It will be presented officially by Congress on Friday 30 May.

The government is markedly increasing its assistance to displaced persons and over the last five years the budget has risen from $80 million to $400 million annually. In 2007, over 230,000 people were forcibly displaced in Colombia according to provisional government figures.




UNHCR country pages

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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Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015Play video

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015

The Danish photographer visited UNHCR's work in Colombia and met with women who show great strength and courage in one of the world's most protracted conflict-ridden hot spots.