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Feature: Refugee girls balance between babies and books

News Stories, 21 April 2004

© UNHCR/K.Shimo
These young mothers in Zambia's Meheba refugee settlement stand to benefit from the "back to school" programme.

MEHEBA, Zambia (UNHCR) Refugee girls are no different from girls anywhere else in the world. Young, idealistic and keen on a life of romance and excitement, some imagine Prince Charming sweeping them off their feet and taking them away from a life of drudgery and toil in the dusty environment of a refugee camp they have come to call home.

But that dream is sometimes shattered when they fall pregnant and have to drop out of school, as was the case with a number of girls in Meheba refugee settlement, one of the oldest camps in Zambia.

In keeping with the Zambian law to help pregnant girls return to school and High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers' wish to empower refugee women, a community-based programme was initiated in Meheba to assist teenage refugee girls who become mothers and who wish to continue their studies.

Last July, 30 girls were identified and assisted to go back to school with financial support from the US Embassy in Lusaka. This year, UNHCR funded another 20 girls under the project.

Besides getting help with school fees and other school materials, the girls also benefit from babysitting services while they are at school. To see them through the psychological difficulties of going back to school after a break and after having a baby, older women from the community form a task force to provide community and psycho-social support and to act as the girls' mentors so that they can work through this transition period.

The girls have formed a solid base of mutual support among themselves. Their shared experience bonds them together and with the help of trained counsellors, they are able to make the best of their situation.

These girls have shown great resilience. Happy to receive a second chance in life, they are now actively engaged in telling other refugee girls about the risks of having sex, particularly with older men and for money. Their experiences bear testimony to the difficulties they have gone through and the suffering such behaviour has brought on them and their families.

"We've been there and know what it's all about. It's just no good," said a 15-year-old refugee girl under the project. "We now want to start afresh."

UNHCR Senior Regional Community Services Officer in Zambia, Marie Lobo, explained that the project has two tracks. "The first is to assist the girls back to school, to put their lives in order, and to empower themselves through the process of education. To learn how to take care of themselves and their babies and to be able to say 'no' to further offers of sex for money," she said.

"The second track is a preventive one that offers peer support to other girls who are seen going down the path of 'sugar daddies', money, sex and eventual ruination. The danger of HIV/AIDS is also brought to the attention of these young girls."

The "back to school" project aims to help these girls complete their studies, begin life anew, and empower them with education and skills to find gainful employment. At the same time, they receive guidance and advice on how to be responsible mothers to their children as they will have to find the means to carry on as single mothers.

The project will continue in 2005 and is implemented by YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) as part of the UNFPA (UN Population Fund) Project to address the reproductive health of adolescent refugees.

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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

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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.

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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