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More refugee girls must go to school, says UNHCR on International Women's Day

News Stories, 7 March 2003

© UNHCR/B. Heger
Internally displaced girls attending school in Colombia.

GENEVA, March 7 (UNHCR) As refugees around the world prepare to mark International Women's Day tomorrow, the UN refugee agency has renewed its commitment to increase the number of refugee girls in school a move aimed at narrowing the disparity in numbers between refugee boys and girls attending school.

Last year, girls made up 39 per cent of refugee children attending UNHCR-assisted primary schools. This figure dropped to 29 per cent at secondary school.

In Dimma, a remote refugee camp on Ethiopia's border with Sudan, a UNHCR education officer reviewing education programmes in January this year found the gender disparity to be even more dramatic. Out of a total of 570 refugees attending secondary school, only six are girls.

"These figures confirm the need to strengthen partnerships and bolster efforts to promote girls' education in UNHCR-assisted and other programmes," said UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner, Mary Ann Wyrsch, in a message to mark International Women's Day, which falls on March 8.

Citing parental attitudes towards girls, dependence on the labour of girls, sexual harassment of girls in school and early marriage as some of the causes of school drop-out among girls, the Deputy High Commissioner said more had to be done to remove persisting obstacles to girls' education.

"Education and literacy are key for empowering women and preparing girls for future roles," noted Wyrsch.

In Afghanistan, a new UN report on the situation of women and children in the war-torn country points out that the overall high illiteracy level of women and girls continues to be one of the main obstacles to their full participation in society.

The report also notes that women and girls made up half of the nearly 2 million returnees to Afghanistan last year, and that women comprise 25 percent of the returnees who have been employed under the Return and Reintegration of Qualified Afghans National Programme run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In its renewed campaign to promote the education of refugee girls, UNHCR will, among other measures, push for the recruitment of more female teachers and classroom assistants, ensure that girls receive sanitary supplies, and raise awareness among parents on the need to send their daughters to school. More refugee girls will also be targeted for scholarship opportunities to increase their participation in formal education.

"We must try to increase opportunities through existing scholarship programmes such as the Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize," said Joyce Mends-Cole, UNHCR's Senior Co-ordinator for Refugee Women. "Fifty percent of the places in this scholarship programme are currently reserved for refugee girls. Given the disparities that exist, we could consider increasing the number of places given to girls through this scholarship scheme."

In 1995, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize to the then-High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, and her staff for their work on behalf of refugees and their contribution to promoting peace.

The prize money was used to support secondary education for young refugees with exceptional academic abilities. In 2002, for example, 97 students, 48 of them refugee girls in Ghana and Uganda, received Peace Prize scholarships that enabled them to attend secondary school. Nearly half of them in their final year of secondary school sat and passed their final exams last year.

On the representation of women at the highest level of decision-making in UNHCR, the Deputy High Commissioner said more needed to be done to achieve gender parity. At present, the number of women at the most senior level of the organisation averages 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency is marking International Women's Day with a range of activities around the world. In Uganda, Nakivale camp and Oruchinga settlement is inviting local leaders and the local community to join the refugees in a day of music, dance, poetry, exhibitions, sports games, as well as a sensitisation meeting on women's rights and empowerment.

In Greece, UNHCR's Women's Group comprising prominent women like former First Lady Margarita Papandreou and Member of European Parliament Anna Karamanou will visit a refugee reception centre, the first in a series aimed at providing relief to refugee women and finding durable solutions for them.

Refugee and returnee women and representatives in Afghanistan, Albania, Britain, Eritrea, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran and Mexico will also hold celebrations, conferences, discussions and informal gatherings to mark the occasion.




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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