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Refugees and UNHCR staff mark International Women's Day

Refugees and UNHCR staff mark International Women's Day

International Women's Day on Friday was marked by refugees and UNHCR staff around the world.
8 March 2002

International Women's Day on Friday was marked by refugees and UNHCR staff around the world.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, more than 500 Afghan refugee women gathered at the city's stadium on Thursday to prepare a special International Women's Day message for their compatriots who were expected to mark the global Women's Day in the Afghan capital, Kabul, today. The theme of this year's International Women's Day was "The Situation of Afghan Women".

The refugee women, mainly living in the Peshawar and Rawalpindi regions of Pakistan, arrived early in the day at the stadium in Islamabad, each carrying a piece of cloth with embroidery, patchwork, paintings or text messages about the role women want to play in the new Afghanistan. The pieces of cloth were later stitched together into a colourful banner, 90 metres long and 2 metres wide, and sent to the Afghan capital. The refugee women say the banner is a symbol of the peace and stability they yearn for in their country.

In Kabul today, as a sign of peace, young girls attending the women's day event released doves and wished participants a happy International Women's Day in English.

Speaking in Geneva on Friday morning at an event organised jointly by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an Afghan panelist, Chekeba Hachemi, appealed for more help from the international community to educate Afghan women.

"Education is crucial for women in Afghanistan - it is premature to talk about legislation, the constitution or charter, their rights, when they cannot read or write," Hachemi told hundreds of people who had gathered at the ILO headquarters to listen to the personal accounts of Hachemi and two other women who have lived through war and conflict in Afghanistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Hachemi was recently nominated by the interim administration in Afghanistan to head her country's embassy in Brussels.

Aid workers in Afghanistan report that large numbers of young girls in Jalalabad, where educational facilities have re-opened, are now going to school. A UNHCR staff member who recently enrolled at a Kabul university said he met many women, some carrying babies, also seeking to continue their education. During five years of Taliban rule, many young women had stayed at home.

At the Geneva event, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said this year's International Women's Day was of particular significance to UNHCR since the refugee agency had also nominated refugee women as the focus of this year's World Refugee Day on June 20.

"Refugee women are key both in our obligation to protect them, but also because we rely on them to do things better," Lubbers said.

The refugee agency chief said his organisation was committed to expanding the involvement of women in the running of refugee camps as well as in the delivery of services.

"The way forward is to work with refugee women, from Afghanistan to Bosnia and all the way to West Africa. We have to build on our experiences, our emotions and even our anger to do better," Lubbers added, referring to recent reports of child abuse in West Africa.

The Geneva gathering was also addressed by Zlata Filipovic, who at the age of 11 kept an Anne Frank-style diary during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. Now 21, Filipovic told the audience that she still considered herself a "child of war," who for months on end was prisoner in her own home with no water, gas or electricity. She recounted how she saw football fields turned into graveyards and friends killed in city parks where they had previously played together. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she added, saw thousands of women "raped, traumatised, refugees or orphaned."

"The tragedy is not that all these things happened to me, but that it happened to hundreds of thousands of others in Bosnia. This is the big tragedy, and three million refugees from the war in Bosnia could tell you the same thing," Zlata told a hushed audience. Her diary, published in 35 languages, became a worldwide bestseller.

Filipovic also told the gathering that when the war in her country ended with the signing of the Dayton peace accords in 1996, another war had started for Latifa and Chekeba Hachemi, her co-panelists from Afghanistan.

"As one conflict ends, is it necessary that another one begins somewhere else in the world?" Zlata asked the applauding audience in conclusion.

Various UNHCR offices worldwide also organised activities to commemorate women's day. In Ethiopia, awards were given to best female actresses in a refugee camp theatre group, while in the Albanian capital, Tirana, an exhibition of handicrafts made by refugee women was organised. Press events were also organised by UNHCR in Greece, Mexico, Belize and Honduras.