Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Progress Report on Implementation of the UNHCR Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress Report on Implementation of the UNHCR Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women

22 July 1992

A. Introduction

1. The UNHCR Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women (EC/SCP/67) (the Guidelines) were submitted to the Executive Committee for information, at its forty-second session. In its conclusion on refugee women (A/AC.96/783, para. 24(b), the Executive Committee welcomed the development of these Guidelines and requested that they be made an integral part of all UNHCR protection and assistance activities. It also requested the High Commissioner to undertake a general evaluation of, and report on, the progress achieved in implementing the Guidelines, for consideration at its forty-third session.

2. In fulfilment of these requests, copies of the Guidelines have been made available to all UNHCR field offices with the instruction that they be fully been circulated widely to governmental and implemented. They have also non-governmental agencies involved in refugee protection. A review of UNHCR's activities in the countries in which the Office is represented has now been carried out to follow up these instructions and to assess the first year of implementation of the Guidelines. As an initial step, field offices were requested to provide information concerning problems encountered, steps taken and progress made in implementing the Guidelines, in the following general areas:

  • statistical information;
  • assessment of specific protection problems facing refugee women;
  • measures by UNHCR and/or local authorities to eliminate or attenuate such problems;
  • any circumstances which may prevent UNHCR from addressing identified protection problems;
  • description of the extent to which assistance programmes contribute to the protection of refugee women; and
  • the level of involvement of refugee women in decisions affecting their physical security or the type of assistance and services provided.

3. The present progress report on the Guidelines synthesizes the many replies received from field offices, as well as more general information provided on protection problems facing refugee women. It also outlines measures taken to address them, in accordance with the Guidelines. This report should, ideally, be read in conjunction with the Progress Report on the Implementation of the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women, document EC/SC.2/47.

B. Statistical information

4. In the Guidelines, emphasis is placed on obtaining an informed understanding of the demographic composition of the refugee population as a point of departure in preventing or addressing protection problems. Of particular relevance, for this purpose, is the identification of vulnerable groups of women, such as adolescent girls and adult women, the elderly and disabled, pregnant and lactating women.

5. Although 75 to 80 per cent of the global refugee population is estimated to be composed of women and children, the replies received indicate that difficulties are being encountered in building up a general knowledge of the demographic profile of the refugee population by gender and age since precise gender-specific statistics are, for the most part, unobtainable. This is due, in some instances, to a general absence of such statistical records in a number of countries, particularly where UNHCR is not involved in the refugee status determination process. In addition, authorities often tend to place "women and children" in a single category, rather than give a breakdown of the number of adult women and the number of children by sex. Identification of vulnerable groups thus becomes problematic. Several field offices have indicated that an accurate evaluation of the characteristics of the refugee population has been efficiently achieved during registration upon arrival, followed by house-to-house visits and periodic reporting, in order to update the information initially obtained. However, this method is less feasible in countries where UNHCR is not involved with, or does not have access to, the refugee population, and reliance on estimates and reporting by national authorities thus becomes necessary. In such cases, wide distribution of the Guidelines to these authorities by UNHCR field offices in an effort to improve information collection has been emphasized.

6. From the reports, it appears that an overall average of 40 per cent of the refugee population are women. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, there is often a lack of precise indication in the statistics provided as to whether these reflect the general, or only the adult, refugee population. Furthermore, this percentage is not always constant as the ratio of women to men (as well as the size of vulnerable groups) in a given group may vary according to the type (mass influx or individual cases) and causes of refugee flows. For example, the sexes are usually equally represented when entire families are on the move because of expulsion from the country of origin, while men tend to outnumber women where the cause of flight was avoidance of conscription. The overwhelming majority of refugees fleeing civil war and internal conflicts (now the principal cause of refugee flows) are women and children, and, in some countries, they also constitute up to 90 per cent of the total population of internally displaced persons and returnees. The number of female-headed households in these groups is also disproportionately high, compared with national figures.

C. Assessment of specific problems facing refugee women

7. As pointed out in the Guidelines, the assessment of specific problems facing refugee women requires identification of the protection problems that may be attributable both to refugee status and to sex. The information presented in this report, for the most part, directly concerns ongoing, gender-related problems faced by refugee women, including lack of status (which directly affects their access to goods and services), maternal and child health problems and sexual exploitation and other security-related problems, which are exacerbated by their condition as refugees. Following is a summary of the main problem areas:

1. Problems caused by camp life

8. As stated in the Guidelines, the response to many refugee situations is emergency-oriented and insufficient attention may thus be paid to the social repercussions on refugees of the conditions under which they are expected to live. Often, refugee women are particularly affected by problems such as cultural and ethnic uprooting and the loss of traditional community life.

9. The most often reported social problems for refugee women in camps are a high incidence of physical violence, sexual abuse and exploitation by male refugees and outsiders, and their inequality (or absence) of representation due to domination by male refugees of camp leadership and organization, even when women constitute the majority. The root causes of such problems have been reported as, inter alia, the disappearance of men's traditional roles and a perceived loss of control over their lives and that of their spouses and children in the camps; and cultural conditioning to accept physical violence against women and children as a normal ingredient of marriage and family life. Camp life may also lead to the relaxation of traditionally strict social mores. In this event, cohabitation and abandonment of families, teenage pregnancies or illegal abortions are often the result. Women are doubly affected by this situation. Apart from being the principal victims of such problems, the traditional social structures (such as a female elder) which could help to defuse such situations may be absent. If, in addition, they are excluded from camp organizational structures, female victims of rape, physical assault and abuse, and those with marital problems, are forced to turn to the male leadership for redress. Even though these leaders may find and punish the perpetrators of violent acts, reports indicate that the woman's emotional distress is often ignored, and she may even be regarded as less respectable, rather than as a victim.

10. The need for better physical organization of camps to foster effective protection for women, as highlighted in the Guidelines, has been underscored and confirmed in reports from the field. It is particularly important for unaccompanied women, especially in camps where there is a high proportion of single persons of both sexes or where male refugees are in the majority. The presence of single men with a military background is said to be a particular source of problems for single and unaccompanied women. Several reports also draw attention to problems of adaptation to life in a camp without freedom of movement for family groups and notably for those whose normal way of life is nomadic. Furthermore, when refugee groups are obliged to live in transit centres, not only freedom of movement but access to social, health and educational facilities may be absent as well. This is reported to be the cause of severe family friction and even threats of collective suicide on the part of one refugee group. On the other hand, the condition of refugee women who live on their own in an urban setting is reported to be no less a problem, as their cultural isolation often creates a need for as much, if not more, individual attention and monitoring of their safety and access to essential services.

11. Such problems are reported to be much attenuated in countries where the refugees belong to the same ethnic group as the host-country population and are housed in proximity to them with freedom of movement. Camps in which a village setting has been created, and which allow refugees to live in family units and to organize themselves along more traditional cultural lines, have also ensured improvements in the protection situation of women.

2. Specific problems of physical safety

12. The importance of ensuring the physical safety of refugee women, particularly vulnerable groups, both during flight and in the country of asylum, constitutes one of their most urgent needs. In this connection, apart from security problems faced by refugees in general, women are reported to be particularly affected by the following:

  • wife (and child) assault and abuse (beating, ill-treatment, threats);
  • sexual violence and harassment by male refugees and outsiders (rape, threats of rape, sexual abuse);
  • sexual attacks and harassment by the military and members of security forces; and
  • abandonment of families, which creates vulnerable groups of unaccompanied women and women heads of household.

In one country, a particular problem is the abandonment of wives after they have outlived their usefulness as prostitutes, following coercion into this activity as a source of income for husbands.

13. Many of these problems appear to be caused, as indicated above, by camp conditions, including poor design, overcrowding and lack of traditional family units which provide communal support. It is evident, however, that in some cases the perpetrators of such acts are, for various reasons, able to operate with impunity. Several reports indicate that, because of refugee women's extreme reluctance to report them, the full extent of rapes and other sexual assaults is unknown. Even when reported, incidents of physical attacks on women, particularly in camps where local law does not apply, may go unpunished because of lack of police protection and legal recourse, or because the women are too fearful of pursuing official complaints against the perpetrators. Furthermore, in some countries, refugee women have been raped or coerced into sexual relations by members of the police and security forces themselves and are evidently without any legal or practical recourse.

14. It is also clear from the reports that locating refugee camps in isolated or unsafe areas also has serious consequences for the physical safety of refugee women. One large camp, which is closed to the local population is situated in a remote area and local law is not applied. This has resulted in isolation of the refugees from neighbouring communities and a lack of police protection and of legal recourse for women who are victims of rape and assaults within and outside their family. Other reports received point to camps located in areas that are susceptible to attacks by thieves and bandits, with women and children being the principal victims.

15. In some countries, refugees may be held in detention centres, pending status determination, for up to two years. Some centres are reported to be without adequate facilities for women and children, who suffer from lack of privacy when the guards are male and when they are detained with men to whom they are not related. One office also reports that female asylum-seekers have been jailed indefinitely for illegal entry during which time they were held with convicts and were subject to sexual abuse by prison staff.

16. In one country with a large refugee population, refugee women who live outside camps and have found work with voluntary agencies have been subjected to death threats because they are considered by refugee men as having forsaken their traditional way of life. Some have been abducted and are presumed to have been killed. Their physical protection has been hampered by the fact that these events are considered to be disputes which should be solved by the refugees themselves without outside interference.

17. One office reports that refugee women who live on their own in urban areas are particular targets for robbery and rape by soldiers, and that there are many cases of young refugee girls who have been arrested after their refugee identification cards were destroyed by soldiers. However, many women who were settled in rural areas returned to urban areas because of lack of physical safety there also.

3. Access to assistance and services

18. Unequal access to food and other supplies is an important area of concern for refugee women, who are largely made responsible for food preparation, fuel gathering and maintenance of family health.

19. Some problems in food distribution have been reported, and these are most often a product of refugee camp life. In one country, these include difficulty of replacement of ration cards lost by female heads of household due to cumbersome procedures, and the issuance of ration cards to husbands, who then run away and abandon their families. Polygamous husbands are also said to practise unfair and uneven food distribution. Sale of food for cash by men has also been reported. Outside camps, where work permits are difficult to obtain and working conditions involving very low salaries and low levels of education are the norm, refugee women, particularly, live under very marginal circumstances resulting, inter alia, in poor nutrition.

20. Women's general state of health and access to health services remain problematic in certain countries. In one camp, where rape and sexual abuse are prevalent, gynaecological services available to treat the victims, including prevention of unwanted pregnancies, are reported to be inadequate. The lack of female doctors/gynaecologists also elicits complaints from refugee women who feel that their needs are not being properly met by male physicians. The urgent need for contraceptives and for female medical personnel (particularly gynaecologists and family planning counsellors) has been highlighted by another field office. This is especially relevant in camps with high birth (and illegal abortion) rates.

21. In countries where health services are expensive, refugee women are unable to obtain free or low-cost medical care if they are not given access to such benefits. This, coupled with their limited economic circumstances and frequent child-bearing, has resulted in poor general - and hence poor maternal and child - health. Refugee women also face often insurmountable economic problems caused, inter alia, by inability to work because permits are not granted to them, or by their lack of the necessary skills. As they are often responsible for their own and their children's economic survival, many experience great hardship in this respect.

22. One field office reports that where skills-training and income-generation projects are made available to the camp population, there is a dearth of meaningful projects for women, even in cases where they constitute the majority. Often, the salaried jobs are almost exclusively reserved for men. Conversely, men's responsibility to participate in health and nutrition projects is not recognized. Many "women's" projects have had little impact because they often tend to overburden the women, with very little financial or other rewards. Examples of this are horticultural and handicraft projects, which require an important investment of time - often a very precious commodity for women - that is not always commensurate with the income gained. Difficulties with implementing partners which refuse to give priority to work for women have also been reported.

23. In some countries where jobs are scarce, it is more usual for refugee women, rather than men, to take menial work to support the family. However, domestic problems resulting from the inversion of economic roles, with wives becoming the main or sole breadwinners, have nevertheless been reported.

24. Little information has been provided on educational facilities in camps, but it appears that few difficulties of access by refugee women and girls are being encountered. However, some reports mention a high rate of female illiteracy, often due to the fact that, because of their many domestic duties, women in camps have no time to attend classes, and even keep their children out of school because they need them to help at home. In one large refugee population, strong opposition on the part of refugee men to education projects for female refugees, including death threats against teachers, has severely hampered efforts to combat female illiteracy.

4. Legal status

25. Absence of legal status in their own right is a problem with far-reaching implications for refugee women. In this connection, reports indicate that, although there has been some progress with issuance of refugee registration cards to women in their own name, in many cases women are still not being provided with separate documentation constituting proof of their refugee status. The issuance of refugee and other documents solely to the husband is said to be a fertile source of difficulties for refugee women in many respects, including voluntary repatriation. Instances have been reported by one office of husbands who decide to repatriate on their own or abandon the family after repatriation, thus leaving the wife and family undocumented.

26. In some countries, refugee women experience difficulties in establishing or changing their civil status. They are often unable to obtain birth certificates for their children, to marry or to divorce legally, because they are not considered as legal residents of the country of asylum. Abandonment of the family and absence of legal responsibility on the part of the father to maintain children are thereby facilitated.

27. In addition, as mentioned above, in one refugee camp a legal vacuum exists in that the laws of the host country do not apply in the camp itself. As a result, legally sanctioned marriage and divorce are not possible, and no official system of crime detection and punishment is in operation. Women who are the victims of crimes such as rape and physical assault, and who are separated from or abandoned by their husbands, are the most severely affected. In the first place, the perpetrators of crimes officially go unpunished, even though they may be subject to relatively mild sanctions by the camp leadership. Secondly, unless they have been recognized in their own right, married women derive their refugee status from their husbands. When a couple separates and each spouse has found a new partner but are still officially married, a wife may find herself in a difficult situation if the husband is accepted for resettlement.

28. As far as refugee status determination procedures are concerned, refugee women in many countries theoretically have access, on an equal basis with men. Nevertheless, as one office reports, the practice is to consider that "women enjoy UNHCR protection indirectly through their husbands", and that wives "play the role of mother and wife and stay at home." It thus continues to deal mostly with male asylum-seekers even if they are accompanied by their families. This approach is prevalent in a large number of countries, with refugee wives still being overwhelmingly treated as dependants of their husbands rather than as refugees in their own right. Their refugee claims therefore tend to be overlooked or ignored by interviewers and often they are not informed of their right to be interviewed on their own. They thus become entirely dependent on their husband's refugee status. In some countries, this dependence exposes refugee women to the risk of expulsion and refoulement along with their husbands, even though they themselves may have a separate, valid refugee claim. Others experience difficulties following divorce or widowhood, or if the husband unilaterally decides to renounce his status, and some are reluctant to leave abusive husbands because of their dependence on his refugee status as a protection against expulsion. A woman is also often unable to make a successful claim for refugee status based on persecution on the basis of gender, as this is still not generally recognized as a valid ground. One office reports that, because of the negative cultural attitude towards unaccompanied refugee women in some countries of temporary asylum, speedy acceptance and resettlement on this ground may be the only answer to their protection problems.

29. A shortage of female staff (interviewers, interpreters, etc.) has also been highlighted, as well as inadequate training as regards gender issues, of officials responsible for refugee status determination. Refugee women themselves are also reported to be in need of education on the status determination process and of the services that are available to them. This is particularly the case in countries where UNHCR is not involved in the refugee status determination process. Country-of-origin information concerning gender issues is also limited in many countries of asylum.

30. Field offices report few problems of access by refugee women to durable solutions such as resettlement or local integration programmes. However, where voluntary repatriation is feasible, one office has drawn attention to insufficient consultation with refugee women by local authorities as in most cases the decision to return to the country of origin is made by men, leaving little opportunity for women to express their opinion or receive information on which to base a decision. In addition, as indicated above, a significant number of women have been abandoned in the country of asylum by husbands who choose to repatriate on their own.

D. Measures to redress problems

31. UNHCR's ability to assist in redressing the problems facing refugee women depends largely on the extent of the Office's involvement with the whole refugee population, and its degree of influence over the procedures for identifying refugees and administering their stay in the host country.

32. In countries where UNHCR maintains a presence in refugee camps, its staff can act as a focal point for complaints and requests for assistance and the Office can intervene directly with governmental and non-governmental agencies, local police and security forces. Where UNHCR is not physically present among the refugees, it relies to a large extent on implementing partners to coordinate and implement assistance programmes, with its ability to influence the protection situation being thereby diminished.

33. Against the background of the above constraints, UNHCR has nevertheless taken a number of specific measures in accordance with the Guidelines to deal with refugee women's problems. Such measures may be summarized as follows:

33.1 Physical re-organization of camps to prevent attacks on women. In one camp, for example, single women were urgently relocated to separate tents near the UNHCR compound, rather than near the camp periphery. In other camps, arrangements were made with the local police to improve protection of refugee women.

33.2 Close involvement of refugee women, from the start, in planning and implementation of assistance services and protection measures. In one example, this was done by a survey of women's needs carried out by the refugee women themselves. Information was collected on their educational level, skills, family situation, domestic violence, major problems and priority needs. The information was then analysed by refugee women and shared with all concerned. In this way, women's priority needs were identified and their cooperation in solving problems assured. The women were thereby also encouraged to play a more active role in camp leadership. In a number of camps, women were directly called upon to assist more actively in camp activities, such as caring for unaccompanied minors.

33.3 The formation of camp committees with equal representation of both sexes. In some countries, special women's groups were set up in camps to ensure proper attention to issues of prime importance to women. In the case of already functioning camp committees, field offices worked actively to improve the representation of women.

33.4 Improvements in the status determination process were made in many countries to enable women to be interviewed on their own and to receive refugee registration documents in their own names. In one case, interviewing of refugee wives, for example, was made obligatory. Some countries have also amended their legislation to exempt alien women from expulsion rules in cases where divorce is initiated because of domestic violence, or where the divorced wife would face acute discrimination in her country of origin. Toleration of abuse and assault for fear of expulsion has thereby been minimized.

33.5 UNHCR has initiated training programmes tailored to women's protection concerns for members of the police force, Government officials, lawyers and refugee status determination officials. UNHCR-instigated training courses were also given in some countries by voluntary agencies, with a focus on prevention of domestic violence and physical/sexual assault. In one country, a UNHCR campaign is under way to sensitize refugee communities to violence against women, women's rights and the impact of violence on their work and self-esteem.

33.6 Family planning programmes in large camps have been designed to reduce the birth rate and prevent illegal abortions. Counselling both to prevent prostitution and to provide psychological assistance to victims of sexual and other types of violence is now widely undertaken. In many countries, recruitment of additional female staff has assisted in this respect. Efforts by field offices to improve women's general and maternal health have included, for example, targeted recruitment of female gynaecologists.

33.7 Special efforts have been made by field officers to provide refugee women with basic services, such as appropriate accommodation, necessary material assistance, subsistence allowance, clothing, food rations, special health care programmes, education for children and vocational training, in countries where Government authorities are uninvolved in refugee affairs or unable to supply them.

33.8 In countries where refugees are allowed to work, vocational training programmes for refugee women followed by assistance in finding employment have been strengthened. Where voluntary repatriation is envisaged, female (as well as male) refugees are being helped to acquire skills for use upon return.

E. Circumstances reported which prevent UNHCR from addressing identified protection problems

34. One of the most important obstacles encountered by UNHCR is lack of access to refugees and/or involvement in status determination procedures. However, access is not always a solution in itself. This is true of countries where refugees have no legal status because, inter alia, the Government has not acceded to the international refugee instruments or permits stay only for a limited period for resettlement purposes.

35. Other problems reported by some field offices range from practical impediments (lack of clothing for refugee women and inability to fence camps, no police support, etc.) to political obstacles (e.g. military and political tensions) which prevent UNHCR from playing its full protection role.

36. The most intractable difficulty confounding efforts to improve the protection of refugee women appears to be the cultural conditioning of women to endure abuse and hardship rather than strive to eliminate them. This conditioning finds its expression in fear of their husbands and other male figures, together with reluctance to report incidents of assault and physical abuse. Many women also feel constrained by their vulnerable condition to yield to authority figures who demand sexual services.

37. Women are also reported to be reluctant to become involved in camp leadership, sometimes because of cultural gender taboos, but also because of the opposition of male refugees. As a result, remedial programmes are without the active involvement of women and can be difficult to implement. Another serious constraint is the very heavy domestic workload of refugee women within and outside camps. This workload has been described by one field office as "a triple burden of productive, reproductive and community activities with almost non-existent rewards and little time or energy left over for recreation, acquiring literacy and skills". The provision of labour-saving devices, fuel and water supplies, nurseries and meeting areas has greatly alleviated this burden in some camps, and has also helped to create time and opportunity for women to participate in camp committees while fulfilling their domestic tasks. Where these are absent, meetings are usually attended and/or dominated by men who often have time to spend because of their lack of involvement with domestic tasks.

F. Conclusions

38. The Guidelines on the protection of Refugee Women are relatively new but with full implementation they are expected to bring about significant changes in the protection of refugee women. Already, they have played an important role in increasing the awareness of all concerned of the serious nature of gender-related problems and their effect on the refugee population as a whole.

39. Branch Office reports reveal, however, the magnitude of the protection task and the amount of work that remains to be done to ensure women's rights and meet their needs. Based on this preliminary assessment, field offices are now being asked to broaden their efforts, alone and in concert with governmental and non-governmental partners, and develop new approaches directly addressing the sorts of problems they have reported.

40. A number of field offices have made their own suggestions for addressing the problems faced by refugee women, and an important source in this regard are the recommendations made by delegates to the Forum on Uprooted Women in Central America (FOREFEM), held from 19 to 21 February 1992 in Guatemala. These have centred on strengthening national legal protections, changing prevailing attitudes to inequality of women and improving women's education, including in the areas of sex and family planning. They have also drawn attention to the need for education programmes on the prevention of domestic violence emphasizing that such violence is a violation of the human rights of women and children. It is recommended that these include consciousness-raising activities regarding the unequal nature of gender-based roles, the lack of equity in distribution of domestic responsibilities and use and control of domestic resources, taking into consideration that making domestic work exclusive to women is a severe limitation on their participation in political, economic and social activities. In addition, it was stressed that the problem of protection of refugee women should be placed more prominently in the human rights context with gender-based restrictions and discriminations being measured against the principle of liberty, security and equality. Emphasis has also been placed on promotion of full observance of existing human rights instruments such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as an activity to be pursued by UNHCR.

41. Some field offices have also pointed out that the Guidelines should deal also with the problems being faced by internally displaced and returnee women, which include lack of documentation and difficulties of reintegration. In this context, the need for a "repatriation" component to be added to the Guidelines which would focus, inter alia, on problems of reorientation and readjustment to life in the country of origin after years spent in refugee camps, has also been identified.

42. These and additional activities will be actively pursued by UNHCR over the coming period, and will be included in the progress report to be submitted to the Executive Committee at its forty-fourth session.