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Brief Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on International Women's Day, Geneva, 8 March 1994

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Brief Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on International Women's Day, Geneva, 8 March 1994

8 March 1994

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you on the occasion of International Women's Day. I would like to speak about a particularly vulnerable category of women - women who are forced to flee their homes and become refugees or internally displaced.

As you know, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to protect and assist refugees, and to find solutions for them. At that time there were one million refugees, mainly from Eastern Europe. Today, UNHCR is helping almost 20 million refugees and displaced persons in 109 countries across the globe, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Burundi, from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, from Somalia to South Africa. On the one hand, we are confronted with refugee emergencies, and on the other with possibilities for repatriation on a scale rarely seen before.

Women and children are the most frequent and the most vulnerable victims of humanitarian tragedies, when conflict erupts and refugees flow across borders. They are also usually the most disadvantaged when the time comes to return home. Very often their homes have been destroyed, communities ravaged, roads and fields heavily mined. I have just returned from a trip to four countries in southern Africa where I saw for myself how repatriation to Mozambique is progressing.

Displacement is often preceded and accompanied by physical violence. We all recall with horror how mass rape has been used in former Yugoslavia to threaten and expel whole communities. It is not the only example of gender-based persecution. Yet, too often immigration officers and judges consider rape and assault, even when done by officials, as private acts and not as a form of persecution against a woman who belongs to a particular political party or has a certain belief or ethnic origin.

Refugee women remain physically vulnerable in the country of asylum. The process of displacement destroys community structures and traditional roles, exposing refugee women and girls to physical violence and exploitation.

UNHCR has always spoken out strongly against violence to refugee women. Fifteen years ago, UNHCR began its first counselling project for Vietnamese refugees who had been attacked by pirates. Recently we developed special programmes for Somali refugees and for Bosnians. In November last year the UN General Assembly endorsed detailed recommendations by the UNHCR Executive Committee for concrete action to protect women and girls, which we are now implementing.

Greater awareness of the problem helps generate public support for the victims and pressure against the perpetrators. Information is an indispensable tool of protection. Therefore, I welcome the attention which the Human Rights Commission has given to the issue of violence against women. I hope that in carrying out her mandate, the Special Rapporteur appointed by the Commission will take into account of the plight of refugee and displaced women.

Physical and sexual violence is only one aspect of the hardship which refugee and displaced women face. When their fathers, husbands or sons are killed or are engaged in the conflict, the women must learn to take on new responsibilities in exile. We have long realised that indiscriminate distribution of assistance among refugees does not benefit men and women equally. Women are often not part of the camp committees which distribute the assistance. They are often unable to have equal access to medical and other facilities because the system is not sensitive to their needs, or overlooks the social and cultural constraints within which refugee women must live.

Recognising the differing impact of our work on refugee men and women, we have sought to mainstream the concerns of refugee women and integrate their needs into our programmes. For a number of years now, UNHCR has been actively promoting and implementing a policy on refugee women to ensure that female refugees benefit equally, adequately and appropriately from UNHCR's protection and assistance. While some progress has been made, much still remains to be done.

Let me conclude by saying that refugee women are not passive recipients of our assistance. They are active architects of their own destiny, and our goal should be to support them in their efforts. As we pay tribute to the struggle for equality of women everywhere today, let us recognise the innate strength and potential of refugee and displaced women. Let us reinforce our commitment to help them overcome the trauma of displacement and return home safely.