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Note on Refugee Women and International Protection

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on Refugee Women and International Protection

28 August 1990


1. The international protection of refugee women has been a concern of the international community for many years. Following discussions in the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection in 1985, the Executive Committee adopted a conclusion1 in which it noted that refugee women and girls constitute the majority of the world refugee population and that many of them are exposed to special problems in the field of international protection. The Committee stressed the need for such problems to receive the urgent attention of governments and UNHCR, and for all appropriate measures to be taken to guarantee that refugee women and girls are protected from violence or threats to their physical safety or exposure to sexual abuse or harassment. Subsequent thereto, UNHCR issued an internal instruction in 1987 that provides guidelines for how to improve the protection of refugee women.

2. In the ensuing years, the Executive Committee continued its consideration of the issue. At its fortieth session it adopted its most recent conclusion on the subject2 in which, inter alia, the Committee requested the High Commissioner to provide a detailed progress report on the implementation of his Office's policies and programmes for refugee women, on both protection and assistance activities." In addition, the Committee requested "that the High Commissioner prepare a revised and expanded version of the internal guidelines relating to the international protection of refugee women."

3. The international protection of refugee women has been considered in several other fora within the United Nations system. Thus, for example, at its second regular session in 1990, the Economic and Social Council adopted resolution 34/2, in which it calls on governments, relevant United Nations agencies, and concerned non-governmental organizations to "increase their efforts to respond to the specific needs of refugee women, in particular those long-term refugees, as well as displaced women, in the areas of education, health, physical safety, social services, skills training, employment and income-generating activities, and to involve refugee women in the planning and implementation of such programmes."

4. For its part, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women will consider the subject at its thirty-fourth session in 1991. In preparation thereof the Centre for the Advancement of Women organized an Expert Group Meeting on Refugee and Displaced Women and Children in July 1990. The Expert Group considered a special report prepared by a Consultant3 and drafted a comprehensive set of recommendations which will be submitted to the Commission on the Status of Women.

5. The present Note is submitted to the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection against this background of concerted efforts by the United Nations system to promote effective protection for refugee women. It is hoped that following discussions in the Sub-Committee, the Executive Committee will be in a position to adopt a comprehensive set of conclusions on the matter. These conclusions, together with whatever recommendations the Commission on the Status of Women decides to adopt next year, will subsequently form the basis for the revised internal guidelines which the Executive Committee has suggested that UNHCR prepare.


6. UNHCR is mandated by the international community to provide international protection to refugees and to seek durable solutions to their problems. International protection entails taking all necessary measures to ensure that refugees are adequately protected and effectively benefit from their rights. Thus, international protection goes beyond legal and diplomatic protection. The intrinsic relationship which exists between protection and assistance is particularly evident in relation to refugee women. Protection concerns can often only be addressed through a variety of measures, many of which are assistance-related. Conversely, the planning and implementation of assistance programmes can have direct, and sometimes adverse, consequences for the protection of refugee women. For these reasons, international protection of refugee women must be understood in its widest sense.

7. The present Note attempts to reflect this approach to the international protection of refugee women. It starts by offering a basic framework for providing international protection. The Note then describes in a succinct manner the special needs and problems facing refugee women. In so doing, it deals with traditional protection concerns such as the determination of refugee status and protection of physical safety. It also describes needs in the areas of food, water and basic relief supplies, health, education, skills training and economic activities as well as durable solutions. The Note attempts, throughout, to identify actions which can be considered in order to redress the problems described. Finally, the Note considers the need for, and role of, female staff employed in refugee programmes.

Basic framework

8. Clearly, the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of refugee women, as those of other refugees, need to be upheld. This entails ensuring not only that the provisions of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees are respected by States parties, but also other relevant international instruments such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two Additional Protocols of 1977 and the 1966 Human Rights Covenants.

9. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women4 is of particular importance in the context of refugee women. Article 3 of that Convention enjoins States parties to "take in all fields, in particular in the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men." This means that no distinction, exclusion or restriction must be made "on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."5

10. It follows from the above that the basic framework for extending international protection to refugee women includes the principle of equity between women and men as one of its fundamental components. lt also includes the notion that the full and effective participation of refugee women in all activities affecting them must be ensured.

11. In relation to this latter point, UNHCR's Policy on Refugee Women presented to this session of the Executive Committee in document A/AC.96/754 notes that UNHCR is obliged, as are all other United Nations organs, to implement the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies on the Status of Women. These Strategies recognize that programmes which are not planned in consultation with, nor implemented with the participation of, more than half of the beneficiaries, i.e. the refugee women, cannot be effective. Indeed, they may inadvertently have an adverse impact on the socioeconomic situation of refugee women.

12. For this reason, the UNHCR Policy acknowledges that to understand fully the needs and resources of the refugee population, and to encourage dignity and self-sufficiency, refugee women themselves must participate in planning and implementing programmes. Socio-cultural and economic roles can, to a large extent, determine the pattern of such participation. Since traditional roles are, however, often disrupted and modified in refugee situations, it is essential that organizations working with refugees recognize that special initiatives must often be launched so that refugee women have the opportunity to contribute in culturally appropriate ways to activities planned for them.

The specific needs of refugee women

13. It is trite knowledge that becoming a refugee affects women and men in different ways. Yet, until recently, few refugee programmes reflected any measurable appreciation of this fact. Certainly, women refugees are generally vulnerable to much the same forms of violations of their basic rights as are men. Armed attacks on refugee camps and settlement are just as likely to cause casualties amongst the female refugee population as amongst the males. Similarly, a denial of the right of education or work will affect women as it affects men. Even so, women refugees have particular needs in the area of protection.

14. When analyzing the problems faced by refugee women, it is often found how similar, if not identical, they are to those faced by women generally in countries of origin and asylum. Several forms of physical violence and discrimination against women, for example, are endemic in most, if not all, countries. The particularity of the situation of refugee women does not reside in the fact that they are subject to such violations of their rights, but in the fact that they are especially vulnerable to them for a number of reasons: because they are fleeing persecution; because of the social disruption caused by flight; sometimes because they have become detached from their families and the protectors provided by their communities; and certainly because they are foreigners in an alien environment. The following paragraphs seek to identify situations in which refugee women are particularly vulnerable to violations of their rights and propose appropriate remedies.

a) Refugee-status determination

15. A woman who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is obviously as much a refugee as her male counterpart. Problems may nevertheless arise in establishing the facts sufficient to lead to the granting of refugee status. This may be the case, for example, when the persecution of a woman takes the form of such cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as sexual assault. Few women are able to talk about such experiences to a male interviewer and very few countries have female staff involved in the refugee status-determination process. In addition, decision-makers involved in the refugee-status determination procedure are not always aware of the particular situation of women in their respective countries of origin. Thus, even where a woman has been persecuted, she finds it more difficult than a man to establish her claim.

16. In order to redress this situation, states can be encouraged to ensure that women asylum-seekers have full access in their own right to procedures for determining refugee status. Female interviewers should be provided who are trained to be sensitive to the issues particular to women and who have well developed interview skills. At the same time, refugee women who are found to have been the victims of violence should receive priority attention through professional, cultural and appropriate gender-based counselling as well as other services in order to overcome the trauma.

17. Even with the adoption of such measures, however, it will not always be possible to extend international protection as refugees to women in need thereof. This is so because the universal refugee definition contained in the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees does not include gender as one of the grounds for persecution which will lead to refugee status being granted. For this reason, the Executive Committee in its Conclusion No. 39 (XXXVI) on Refugee Women and International Protection recognized that States, in the exercise of their sovereignty, are free to adopt the interpretation that women asylum-seekers who, for example, face particularly severe gender-based discrimination may be considered as a "particular social group" within the meaning of the 1951 Convention's refugee definition.

18. It is submitted that in light of the increasingly universal character of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, severe discrimination, in disregard of this Convention, may justify the granting of refugee status in line with the reasoning provided above. In order to facilitate the task of determining the refugee claim of persons who are in such a situation, it is important that decision-makers involved in the refugee-status determination procedures have at their disposal background material and documentation describing the situation of women in countries of origin, particularly regarding gender-based persecution and its consequences.

b) Physical safety

19. Rape, abduction, sexual harassment, prostitution, physical violence and the not-infrequent obligation to grant "sexual favours" in return for documentation and/or relief goods, remain a distressing reality for many refugee women. Just how common such violations are, however, remains exceedingly difficult to assess. While the Anti-Piracy Programme established by the Royal Thai government has served to highlight the extent of this problem in the waters of South-East Asia, similar programmes have not, generally, been established elsewhere. Yet one fundamental lesson learned from that programme - namely, that victims of attacks and sexual abuse will not easily talk about their experience and that a determined effort must therefore be made to "seek out" the information in order to understand the magnitude of the problem and address it - could usefully be applied in other refugee situations.

20. While the exact extent of the problem is therefore not known, the various forms and circumstances in which refugee women suffer violence and sexual abuse are nevertheless fairly well documented, as are some of the responses which can be used to redress the problem. The former include rape and abuse by border guards and soldiers at entry points along national borders, as well as in camps and settlements. Camp administrators and refugee men have also been known to sexually molest refugee women. Sexual abuse can take place in the context of the refugee-status determination procedure, when officials may offer a positive determination upon receipt of sexual favours. Similar practices may occur in the resettlement process or when refugee women seek relief rations from refugee assistance officials. Finally, refugee women, whether unaccompanied or as female heads of households, may be subjected to abuse by law enforcement officials, particularly if they are without documents and therefore are unable to prove that they are lawfully in the country of asylum.

21. In order to redress these problems, a large variety of measures can be taken, the combined effect of which would be to eliminate over time such violations of the basic rights of refugee women. For example, refugees themselves should be invited to provide support for improving the protection of refugee women. The establishment of women's associations should be encouraged, as should that of refugee committees, which should also include refugee women. The staff of relevant organizations and authorities, including local military and law-enforcement agencies, should be made fully aware of the rights and needs of refugee women. The latter should also be informed of their rights and entitlements.

22. Clearly, there is a need for utilizing the capacity of refugee women to a much larger extent than hitherto. They must be drawn into the process at the earliest stages of a refugee situation so that their needs can be addressed already when the first protection and assistance measures are designed. In particular, it is important to ensure greater input and participation by refugee women in developing mechanisms to improve the reporting of physical and sexual abuse, establishing preventive measures and planning and implementing corresponding assistance and other programmes. Here again, the need for professional, cultural and appropriate gender-based counselling as well as other services for victims of abuse must be addressed as a matter of priority. Host governments and implementing partners should also increase their female field staff for the specific purpose of identifying and providing support for refugee women who may be the victims of physical violence and sexual abuse. The relevant authorities should ensure that such staff have direct and unhindered access to refugee women.

23. For purposes of prevention, the presence of qualified personnel, be they international or national, of relevant organizations should be strengthened along escape routes, in reception centres, camps and settlements and in other areas where refugee women find themselves, in order to assist in providing protection for the affected populations and to monitor and report on the situation. Whenever required, special training programmes should also be established for such staff.

24. The relevant national authorities should furthermore be encouraged to undertake special law-enforcement measures in order to ensure that persons who have committed crimes against refugee women are apprehended and prosecuted. Such measures should also ensure that the victims of these crimes receive not only appropriate care but also effective protection against retribution.

25. Experience points to the need for taking special measures for ensuring the physical safety of refugee women in camps and settlements. The need for such measures should be addressed already at the planning stage of a refugee location. One of the aims of such planning should be to conserve, to the extent possible, the original community from the country of origin at the new site. This has proved useful in enhancing the protection offered to refugee women by their own community. Another aim must be to ensure that basic services at the site are located in such a manner that refugee women do not become vulnerable to attack when they need to avail themselves of these services. A third concern involves ensuring protection of refugee women during the night. Such protection may, depending upon the circumstances, be enhanced by frequent night patrols and improved lighting. Fourthly, special consideration must be given to unaccompanied refugee women and female heads of households and they should be consulted when accommodation is planned for them in a camp or settlement situation.

26. There is also a recognized need for identifying alternatives to camps for refugees. While clearly useful from an assistance point of view in many emerging refugee situations, prolonged stay in such camps can lead to a breakdown in law and order. When refugees are confined for a lengthy period of time in a limited space and denied the opportunity to resume a more normal life, with no solution in sight, there is a tendency to resort to violence, which again may affect women more than men. One option for redressing such situations may be to offer wage-earning opportunities to the adult population so that their dignity can be restored and quality of life improved.

27. One element which makes refugee women particularly vulnerable to physical violence and sexual abuse is the fact that in many refugee situations they are deprived of proper documentation and can therefore not prove that they are legally in the country of asylum. This points to the need for issuing individual identification and/or registration documents to all refugee women, whether their refugee status has been determined individually or as part of a group in a mass-influx situation. Such documents should be issued irrespective of whether or not the women are accompanied by male family members.

28. Sexual exploitation for the purposes of prostitution occurs in a large number of refugee situations. It involves primarily single refugee women and girls who are unaccompanied, as well as female heads of households. When a refugee woman lives alone in an urban area, she is sometimes tainted immediately as a prostitute. When prostitution occurs, the causes are complex. Refugee women often do not have alternative means of income and face obstacles to obtaining work permits, difficulties in finding someone to take care of children while they work, and abandonment by husbands, to mention but a few causes. The remedies are often also complex but include, as a minimum, a reorientation of many refugee programmes to ensure that refugee women are offered realistic alternatives to prostitution as a means for sustaining themselves and their dependents.

c) Food, water and relief supplies

29. The principal cause of mortality in many refugee situations is malnutrition. Since poorly nourished persons are more susceptible to disease and are also more difficult to cure, lack of food is a major indirect contributor to death. Under-nourished women are affected by deficiencies in iron, calcium, iodine and Vitamin C. Pregnant women are particularly at risk since they run the danger of miscarriages or fatal haemorrhaging during childbirth if they are anaemic. Women who are pregnant or lactating are unable to provide sufficient nutrients for their children to survive. Where refugee women have limited access to sufficient food, their means of survival may be further impaired by poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies. Moreover, their survival may be compromised by denial of access to basic relief items such as shelter and clothing.

30. Access on an equal footing with men to food, water and basic relief supplies therefore constitutes a key issue for refugee women. And yet, decisions about food aid are generally taken without a complete understanding of their specific needs. As a result, both the food basket and the procedures for distributing it may be inappropriate. For example, food should not be inconsistent with the dietary traditions of the refugees, nor should it be of a variety that cannot be prepared in a camp setting. These problems may be further compounded by cultural practices that require that men be fed first which become particularly worrisome when, as is currently the case, there are shortfalls in food supplies and UNHCR, because of its budgetary constraints, cannot cushion ration cuts by purchasing additional food.

31. Even in such precarious situations, food distribution through male networks has been diverted to resistance forces or for sale on black markets with refugee women and children suffering as a result. In other instances, male distributors of food and other relief goods have required sexual favours in exchange for relief goods.

32. The distribution of milk powder in refugee camps constitutes an additional problem in so far as milk powder is not an acceptable substitute for breast-feeding. Refugee women often use the milk powder when they are unable to lactate, a situation they may resort to because of poor nutrition. When mixed with non-sterile water, milk powder can lead to severe diarrhoea with fatal results.

33. There is, then, an obvious necessity for being aware of the needs of refugee women and for ensuring their full participation in the design and implementation of food programmes. In order to combat malnutrition and increase self-reliance, refugee women should have an opportunity to produce, trade or otherwise acquire sufficient food for themselves and their dependants. To the extent that food assistance continues to be required, refugee women as a group must be associated with and play a key leadership role in the establishment and implementation of distribution systems. They should also be consulted prior to ordering such relief items as pots, pans and containers.

34. Food rations must obviously be nutritionally balanced, have adequate caloric content and be consistent with traditional dietary practices and special attention must be paid to the needs of women of child-bearing age. The World Food Programme (WFP) and other donors of food aid should be encouraged to fortify food aid with needed vitamins and minerals. Special systems for monitoring the nutritional status of refugee women should be established and women should be trained to undertake the necessary monitoring themselves. When nutritional deficiencies or declining nutritional status is detected, immediate steps should be taken to improve the nutritional content of the food rations. Educational programmes on nutrition for refugee women should also be established or strengthened.

35. Refugee women, like many other women in developing countries, spend a great deal of their time on water collection. Containers that are too heavy or water sources that are located too far away from the refugee sites can compound the problem by increasing the time necessary for carrying out this task and by making them vulnerable to personal attacks. Similar problems can be seen with regard to the collection of fuel for cooking and heating.

36. In view of the above, it is essential that refugee women have access to safe drinking water and sanitary facilities. They should be involved in the identification of requirements and preferences concerning the type and location of water points and should be trained in their use and maintenance. Culturally appropriate means must also be put at their disposal for collecting water, for bathing and for washing clothes.

d) Health

37. The access by refugee women to adequate health services is important to their own health and to the welfare of the community since women typically bear the main responsibility for the larger part of family chores and their inability to carry out such tasks may put the family at risk. Women are also prime providers of health care to other family members. Thus, the health of other members of the family is directly related to the refugee woman's knowledge or interest in promoting a healthy environment and taking preventive actions against disease.

38. The high frequency of pregnancies, causes a large number of deaths among refugee women of child-bearing age. Complications arising from pregnancies grow out of the use of poorly trained midwives, inadequate lighting and unsanitary conditions during birth (particularly unsterile instruments). Since refugee women are generally responsible for collecting and storing water, they are also susceptible to water-borne diseases. Contaminated water may produce illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery and infectious hepatitis. Other diseases or vectors, such as intestinal parasites and schistosomiasis, are transmitted through either drinking, or bathing in contaminated water. In addition, refugee women may be infected with sleeping-sickness, malaria, yellow fever and river blindness by insects which breed near water.

39. As reported by a number of different fora, health complications for refugee women may also result from harmful effects of such traditional practices as clitorectomy. Such complications include infections due to unsterile instruments, damage to adjacent organs, obstructed menstrual flows, painful intercourse, severe loss of blood and obstetric complications. As has already been noted, refugee women may also face mental health problems and emotional trauma as a result of physical violence or other sexual abuses they may have suffered. Such problems can be compounded by loss of traditional support systems, difficulties in adjustment to life as a refugee, domestic violence, overwork and the side-effects of physical ailments.

40. Culturally inaccessible health services can be an obstacle to good health among refugee women. The absence of female health practitioners constitutes an insurmountable barrier in situations where cultural values prevent a woman from being seen by a male health practitioner who is not a member of her immediate family. In other situations, inconvenient clinic hours may prevent women from seeking health services, given their many other responsibilities. This may become particularly troublesome in situations where the treatment of diseases, such as tuberculosis, requires regular visits to health centres. If the clinics are located too far away from the women, concern for their physical safety may furthermore impede their access to the required health services.

41. Similarly, inappropriate health services impede good health amongst refugee women. In several situations, for example, gynaecological services are inadequate. Basic needs for adequate clothing and washing facilities for menstruating women are often overlooked. Infections and cervical cancer are not detected and counselling regarding sexually transmitted diseases is generally inadequate. Few programmes focus on the needs of adolescent girls. Access to culturally appropriate child-spacing information and devices is limited in most refugee programmes. The environment of camps may also contribute to make the use of certain child-spacing techniques difficult.

42. As in other aspects relating to improving the protection of refugee women, it is essential that refugee women also participate fully in the identification, design and implementation of all refugee health programmes. Such programmes should emphasize primary health care and be community-based. Traditional birth attendant programmes, as well as visits by female health officials to homes, should also be included. Institutions operating health programmes for refugees should be urged to set staffing guidelines requiring that at least fifty per cent of their health workers should be women. In particular, increased efforts be made to identify and train women, including refugee women, as health workers.

43. Immunization, maternal and child health services, including gynaecological services, education regarding sexually transmitted diseases and harmful traditional practices as well as culturally appropriate child-spacing services should be made available to all refugee women. Services should also contain rehabilitation programmes for disabled and elderly refugee women. As pointed out earlier, counselling and mental health services should also be made available, particularly for victims of torture, rape and other sexual abuse, trauma and physical violence.

e) Education

44. The right to education is universal and has been reconfirmed both by a large variety of international instruments and by the Executive Committee in its conclusion on Refugee Children.6 Even so, millions of refugee children are without education, and refugee girls are less likely to receive education, than boys. In primary education, the general trend shows that girls start to drop out of school at the third grade and the drop-out rate accelerates as the grades become higher. At the secondary level, only some twenty-eight percent of the scholarship holders in refugee programmes are girls, while the corresponding figure at the higher educational levels is twenty-three percent.

45. Insufficient national and international resources, an inadequate number of teachers, lack of appropriate teaching materials and restrictive cultural patterns within certain refugee groups constitute the main impediments to increasing the number of refugee students, including refugee girls. In addition, refugee women face such problems as the absence of day-care facilities for their children and lack of time and energy after long hours of work either as a wage-earner or as a household worker.

46. Apart from trying to provide remedies for such deficiencies, it is important that scholarship programmes ensure equitable participation of refugee women and girls. Certificates should be provided for the education they have undergone so that these qualifications can subsequently be recognized by the concerned authorities, be it in the country of origin, asylum or resettlement.

f) Skills-training and economic activities

47. Refugee women largely face the same kind of impediments to skills-training as they do in relation to education. In addition, in order to benefit from many skills-training programmes, refugee women must have some form of prior education, most notably in terms of literacy.

48. A basic need of many refugee women, particularly heads of households, is sufficient income to support their families, yet few programmes look to women as an important economic resource. While household strategies for economic survival will differ greatly depending upon the composition of the family, existing work opportunities and cultural constraints, refugee women play an important economic role in all situations.

49. This role is often centered around the food ration as the principal component of the household's economic survival. Women are often responsible not only for preparing the food but also for trading food or supplementary feeding items in order to obtain other things that are needed by the family. Where home gardens are permitted, refugee women may also have the responsibility for growing vegetables that provide nourishment and income for the household.

50. Refugee women are, however, also sometimes employed in the local economy, although here they may be largely constrained by local laws and policies. while some countries permit refugees to work legally, others do not and refugee women tend to find work, if at all, in the informal sector. Thus, it is not unusual to find refugee women who maintain their families by working as domestics. In some countries, employment by assistance agencies is the only form of employment permitted by the host country. In practice, however, such employment opportunities are offered to refugee women almost only in the health sector or to occupy themselves with "women's projects".

51. For many refugee women, trading enterprises and small businesses could provide a source of income. While some of the women possess the necessary skills to trade on their own, others participate in income-generating projects geared to developing these skills or establishing businesses in which to earn income. Women's participation in such projects has been facilitated by addressing cultural constraints imposed on women who seek work outside their homes. A number of problems have nevertheless beset these projects. They focused, for example, on what were perceived as traditional women's activities, such as handicrafts, which are also marginal economic activities. These projects also suffer from such problems as lack of clarity regarding their goals and objectives, excessive administrative costs, inadequate funding, unrealistic time-tables and inadequate consultations with the refugee community. Refugee women have not generally been involved in some of the larger projects, which focus on reafforestation, infrastructure development or agricultural activities. As a result, few of the women's projects have led to long-term economic self-sufficiency for the women involved.

52. Yet again, in order to redress these problems it is essential that refugee women be involved in the planning and implementation of skills-training, employment and income-generating activities for the whole refugee community, although special programmes for women may sometimes be required. Training programmes should be promoted that provide refugee women with marketable and business skills in both traditional and non-traditional sectors, recognizing that by becoming refugees their traditional role is likely to have changed and they may have become heads of households with responsibility for sustaining the whole family. These programmes should include skills-training in agricultural and non-agricultural activities, literacy and numeracy and in leadership and managerial fields.

53. Whenever possible, the relevant authorities should be encouraged to provide refugee women with opportunities for productive activities, including access to sufficient land for the purpose of household gardening and animal husbandry. Host governments should also facilitate the issuance of work permits and other necessary documents so that refugee women may take up employment or other economic activities. Employment-creation schemes and income-generating activities should be designed and implemented on the basis of sound needs assessments, research and feasibility studies and with the full participation of refugee women to ensure that such activities are viable and sustainable. These activities should also be assessed in order to determine their impact.

g) Durable solutions

54. Generally speaking, there is relatively little information available regarding the international protection concerns that are specific to refugee women in relation to durable solutions. On the other hand, while further study is therefore recommended, some issues are sufficiently documented to warrant being addressed.

55. In fact, most of the protection issues facing refugee women during the refugee experience may recur in situations of voluntary repatriation, particularly where such return is spontaneous and unassisted. Refugee women may again be subjected to physical violence and sexual abuse as they travel back to their place of origin. Once back, they may be subjected to additional problems from a potentially hostile community that stayed behind. The latter may, for example, be reluctant to allow returning refugee women to reclaim their land, particularly if the women are unaccompanied by adult male family members.

56. A further potential protection problem for women involves the decision-making process on voluntary repatriation. There may, in fact, be little opportunity for a refugee woman to express her view on the subject and have it respected, even if she is heading a household. The problem is two-fold: there may be women who want to return but who are prevented from doing so by male refugees who have determined that no one should repatriate or they may be forced to return against their will. Additionally, they may not be given the required information in order to make an informed choice. For example, when select refugees are assisted to visit their country of origin with a view to determine whether they can return, it is unusual to invite women refugees.

57. In several asylum countries, refugees are allowed to remain and settle but have no means of establishing their legal right to residence. As a result, many of the problems outlined in this Note stay with them for the rest of their lives. For example, refugee women remain vulnerable to physical violence and sexual abuse, they cannot own land, obtain work and become economically self-supporting, they cannot benefit from social services and are deprived of basic human rights.

58. Most of the refugee women who are resettled in third countries enter as part of a complete family unit. Among some refugee populations, however, a significant number of women-headed households have been resettled. Special efforts have been made to find resettlement opportunities for refugee women who are at particular risk in countries of first asylum. To date, three countries have developed such programmes, which are geared for refugee women who either cannot be protected in the country of first asylum or who are not eligible for resettlement and yet in need of urgent resettlement, such as victims of piracy, rape, torture and other trauma. These programmes provide strong support upon arrival in the country of resettlement to enhance rehabilitation and self-sufficiency.

59. In conclusion, while further study should be made of the particular protection problems facing refugee women in the context of durable solutions, certain problems have already been identified and should be addressed. The wide variety of problems facing refugee women during exile need to be addressed also in the context of their voluntary repatriation. As an example, adequate information should be provided to refugee women on the situation prevailing in their country of origin so that they can make an informed decision on voluntary repatriation. Special efforts should be undertaken to ensure that this decision is also respected. Additional measures may be required in the country of origin to afford them protection and other basic rights. In countries of asylum, every effort should be made to ensure that refugees can legalize their stay in the country, if at all possible, through naturalization.

60. As regards resettlement opportunities, countries should be urged to increase substantially their quotas or to open new ones for resettlement of refugee women at risk and to apply current selection criteria with greater flexibility to permit admission of refugee women who are not accompanied by a male head of family. The procedure for selecting and arranging for the departure of such women should be shortened to the maximum extent possible in order that refugee women at risk can be protected effectively. Refugee women should be informed of their rights in the resettlement procedure as well as in the country of resettlement. They should be assisted to receive necessary language training and education. Often they will require community and other support in order to deal with their changing role and status in the new country. Non-governmental organizations can play an important role in providing such assistance.

Female staff in refugee programmes

61. Throughout this Note there has been a recurring theme calling for the full participation of refugee women in the identification of needs and resources, in the planning of activities and in their implementation. It is not the first time that this point has been made and, indeed, one commentator on this subject has noted that participation has one of the worst ratios of rhetoric to reality that one can find.

62. Part of the problem lies in the fact that refugees generally have a limited participation in such decision-making. Another factor is the cultural constraints that in certain situations act to impede involvement of refugee women, particularly where they had a limited role in their country of origin. Even so, women refugees often had alternative opportunities to express their concerns prior to leaving their country of origin, which may no longer be open to them. Not- only will their voices remain unheard unless special arrangements are made, but their knowledge, experience and resources will remain untapped to the detriment of effective refugee programmes. While there is much to be said for maintaining cultural values, it is often not possible to do so in refugee settings where traditional communities have been broken up during flight.

63. Participation of refugee women in programme management has occurred in several countries with positive results. In many other situations, however, it is difficult to draw refugee women into the process since there are relatively few staff in the organizations working with refugees who can establish a dialogue with them. The number of female staff, including in UNHCR, working with refugees remains dismal in most situations.

64. Every effort should be made to encourage the full participation of refugee women in programme management. While such encouragement should respect, to the extent possible, existing cultural values, one should make a determined effort to find out what constitutes traditional women's roles in a particular society rather than making assumptions of what they are. As has been seen, the very survival of refugee women and their dependants is contingent upon their playing a much more active role in the management of programmes established for the refugee populations. In order to achieve this aim, it is also important that all those organizations working in the refugee programme significantly increase the presence of female staff, particularly in the field.


65. The ultimate goal of protection is to ensure that refugees can resume a normal life in a community, be it in the country of origin, asylum or resettlement. As achieving this goal presupposes the ultimate attainment of self-sufficiency by the refugee population, the international protection of refugee women requires a developmental approach in which they must be fully integrated. Their human resources must be developed and refugee women must be active partners in identifying and assessing needs, planning activities and implementing them. Such an approach does not require additional resources. On the contrary, only thus can scarce resources be used with maximum efficiency.

66. International protection of refugees also requires a human rights approach based upon equity, and refugee women should be informed about their rights as refugees and as women. In this, as in many other areas covered in this note, simple training tools can most effectively be used by UNHCR, governments and their implementing partners in educational and similar activities.

67. Extending international protection to all refugees, including refugee women, is a corporate endeavour involving the refugees themselves, governments, international, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as other implementing partners. Although many problems have to be addressed, if refugee women are to be protected, there is sufficient scope for achieving solutions through a persistent and concerted effort by the international community.

1 Executive Committee Conclusion No. 39 (XXXVI) on Refugee Women and International Protection.

2 Executive Committee Conclusion No. 60 (XXXX) on Refugee Women.

3 The report was prepared by Susan Forbes Martin and is entitled "Issues in Refugee and Displaced Women and Children".

4 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 34/180 of 18 December 1979.

5 Article 1, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

6 Executive Committee Conclusion No. 47 (XXXVIII) on Refugee Children.