Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (Refugee women) - Do we really care?

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1995

UNHCR started trying to improve its protection and assistance for women refugees a decade ago. One of the main obstacles has been entrenched attitudes within the organization.

By Christiane Berthiaume

"We could have done more, and we could have done better. We have achieved some things. But we've still got a long way to go."

This is how Ann Howarth-Wiles, UNHCR's coordinator for refugee women, summarizes the past five years of UNHCR policy towards those who represent together with their children almost 80 percent of the world's refugees.

Too harsh a judgement?

The problems of refugee women are too often relegated to second-rank priority. There is always something more pressing to do than to deal with the difficulties that women, in particular, encounter in refugee situations. Often, it seems, only a crisis such as the mass rapes of women in ex-Yugoslavia or in Somalia can spark action, when simple prevention could have avoided suffering.

A decade ago, UNHCR began to realize that refugee women were not benefiting fully from the protection and assistance that was their right. To evaluate and analyze the gaps in its programmes for refugee women, UNHCR set up a working group, comprising mostly women of junior rank.

It soon became apparent that, without any malicious intent, UNHCR had been overlooking the specific needs of a large part of the refugee population. Refugee women were largely left out, despite the fact that they had manifestly greater needs. Many had fled alone or with just their children their husbands either dead, fighting or prisoners of war.

"Women were never deliberately marginalized," said Howarth-Wiles. "But our information came from the leaders of refugee committees that were exclusively male. Many aspects of daily life escaped us, such as a woman's need for wood as fuel, or for cooking."

UNHCR did not undertake this change alone. A large number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had also begun analyzing their failure to grasp issues affecting refugee women, and had come to similar conclusions. In 1988, several major NGOs held a seminar and published the first working guide for meeting the specific needs of refugee women.

Also in 1988, then Deputy High Commissioner Eugene Dewey asked the Canadian government for help. Canada, with its international reputation for development programmes aimed at women, seemed best placed to assist UNHCR to effect a sea change.

Canada agreed to pay the first three years' salary for a coordinator. UNHCR would provide administrative support. In 1989, UNHCR's first Coordinator for Refugee Women was named, with the task of sensitizing staff to the particular burdens confronting refugee women and to respond to them more effectively.

"For the first four months, I had no secretary," Howarth-Wiles recalls. "Finally, I got one part time. That's when I realized I was going to have to fight, and that the battle was far from won, even inside the organization."

The hardest battles were yet to come. In fact, they are still raging.

Within a year, a policy on women refugees was developed and a training programme had been set up, with financing from the United States and Canada. "People-oriented planning" (POP) was designed to encourage staff to perceive, and address, the needs of all refugees men, the elderly, children and women.

"A training programme focused only on the needs of women would have been of little interest," explains Howarth-Wiles. "No one would have cared. Moreover, I felt my mandate was wider that it should include all refugees, in order that our programmes should be really effective."

POP has constantly changed over the years. Needs have altered, as the shift in geopolitics has led new populations of refugees to flee. Programmes set up to cover the needs of refugee women in Africa did not necessarily meet the needs of refugee women in Europe whose numbers today almost equal those in Africa.

Today, POP is UNHCR's major training programme. In recent years, more than 990 staff members have participated in 50 courses.

In 1990, UNHCR published a general policy on refugee women, and the next year issued its Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women.

But progress has been slower than expected.

The main obstacle remains a lack of motivation. "Changing the attitudes of staff members toward the needs of refugee women, to improve our track record, is the heaviest challenge," notes Howarth-Wiles. "Making everyone feel responsible and making everyone realize that this is not an isolated problem is the main hurdle. There are some very blinkered, very male chauvinist elements within the staff, even at the highest level."

Even today, staff members will almost unanimously turn to the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women to obtain information on women refugees in a particular situation although their problems should be the business of every staff member.

"A programme officer should have an answer to questions on the problems of women, just as he or she has answers to questions about food tonnage, number of tents, number of refugees, health, security and so on," Howarth-Wiles said. "Unfortunately, this is rarely the case."

When camps are designed and mapped out, the needs of women should be automatically integrated into planning. Much suffering could be avoided if, from the outset, all camps were designed so that the most vulnerable single women or single mothers are more easily protected. Many might escape the sexual violence to which they too often fall prey when they are obligated to live far from others, or to walk for miles in search of wood.

"Unfortunately, all this depends on the good sense and the good will of the staff in the field," Howarth-Wiles notes.

Where the staff are highly motivated, UNHCR programmes have taken into account the specific problems of refugee women. Thus among others Guatemalan refugee women in Mexico, Mozambican refugee women in Malawi and Zimbabwe, Afghan women in Pakistan or returnee women in Cambodia have benefited from well-designed programmes and thoughtful assistance.

In other operations, where staff have been less motivated, much less has been accomplished.

"The only tool at our disposal to sensitize the staff is a training programme which is not mandatory, but optional," observes Howarth-Wiles. "Moreover, for lack of resources, we are giving fewer courses today than we once did especially considering the increase in staff, with successive crises in former Yugoslavia, in the former Soviet Union, and in Rwanda and Burundi. And yet we have the cheapest training programme in the whole organization."

In addition, there remain a number of tenacious taboos. According to a 1993 in-house evaluation of UNHCR's policy on refugee women, many staff members still feel that rape and sexual violence may be regrettable, but remain essentially inevitable incidents in refugee life.

"Within this agency, there are two opposing attitudes," says Howarth-Wiles. "There are people who believe that the organization should not interfere with refugee customs. According to this school, we are not there to change people's culture or mind-set, and we should respect the traditions of refugees, whether this means the veil, forced marriage, failure to educate girls, genital mutilation, or lack of access to family planning. To this school, I respond that respect for human rights is also part of UNHCR's mission."

"Our work consists of aiding refugees to adapt to a new life," she continued. "When a woman flees, leaving a family in which she had been totally dependent, and finds herself alone in a foreign country, she needs help to assume her new role."

Such help should, of course, be given with care. "Of course we need restraint," says Howarth-Wiles. "We aren't here to impose anything. But we are here to propose alternatives, so that refugee women have a choice."

In Mexico, programmes for Guatemalan women have been particularly successful. Critics who once worried that the future of such women would be compromised when they returned home integrating into an environment that traditionally paid scant attention to the rights of women have been silenced by the refugee women themselves. "They say they need no such paternalism that it's their problem," says Howarth-Wiles. "It's their responsibility."

Attitudes inside UNHCR change slowly, but they are changing. "When I arrived at the agency, if I talked about rape in the camps, people shrugged," recalls Howarth-Wiles. "Some staff members even told me that rape never happened in refugee camps. Or, about genital mutilation, they would respond that this was a cultural issue."

Accounts of brutal rape in Bosnia, which sparked outrage worldwide, lifted many barriers. No one can now deny that such acts occurred.

On March 7, International Women's Day, UNHCR published its first guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual violence against refugees.

In Kenya, UNHCR has established a special programme for refugee women who have suffered sexual violence. Several camps have been re-designed, and victims and their families can receive special medical and psychological care. The programme has been tested, and could be reproduced in almost any camp, anywhere. It remains, however, an exception.

Genital mutilation has long been a taboo. "When I brought it up, people would tell me it was too delicate an issue," notes Howarth-Wiles. Meanwhile, UNICEF and the World Health Organization took a strong stand against the practice, and today UNHCR has set up an education programme in a camp for Somali refugees in northern Ethiopia to discourage mutilation. The pilot programme is aimed at religious leaders, midwives and health care professionals and could be reproduced elsewhere. So far, it too is an exception.

Much remains to be done and UNHCR is far from its goal of covering all the needs of refugee women. To be sure, the goal is not an easy one. In crisis situations, with refugees arriving in conditions of dramatic suffering, the obstacles are numerous and field staff are often reduced to doing the best they can with what little they've got in terms of staff and funding.

But it is also a fact that most women refugees live in more stable conditions. And many of them need much more attention.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (1995)