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"Protecting Victims/Survivors of SGBV: Beyond Guidelines": Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR: Launch of the SGBV Guidelines, September 2003

Speeches and statements

"Protecting Victims/Survivors of SGBV: Beyond Guidelines": Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR: Launch of the SGBV Guidelines, September 2003

1 September 2003

Forced flight from conflict or persecution increases vulnerability to violence. Women and children are at heightened risk, including of sexual and gender based agression. This vulnerability is particularly prevalent during the flight, but persists even after personal circumstances may have somewhat stabilised, including in camp environments. It is a feature not least of separation from or loss of family members and community support structures, unequal power relationships, economic and social inequalities, inadequate assistance, and impunity for perpetrators of crimes and violence. Refugee women and girls are often subject to specific forms of abuse, such as rape, abduction, trafficking or demands for sexual favours in exchange for offers of protection, documents or assistance. Refugee children, particularly but not exclusively girls, are at even greater risk of sexual exploitation and other such forms of abuse.

The Agenda for Protection, adopted by States in 2002 as a common UNHCR/State action plan to improve refugee protection world wide, has as one of its six principal goals, addressing all security related concerns more effectively, with a specific objective under this goal the prevention of age based and sexual and gender based violence. To this end, the Agenda calls on UNHCR, states and other relevent actors to ensure measures and mechanisms are in place, including remedial actions. UNHCR's Guidelines which are relevent, notably in the present context the recently revised SGBV Guidelines, are deemed a particularly important contribution to this effort, and the strong call is made for UNHCR to work with states to ensure their full implementation.

The process leading to the revision of these Guidelines has indeed been long. It started with calls during the 2001 SGBV Lessons Learnt Conference for the revision of the 1995 Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response.

The process of revision reflects UNHCR's commitment to ensuring that ever better tools are provided to frontline UNHCR staff. The difficult experiences we had in West Africa and Asia certainly heightened the awareness of all - UNHCR, implementing partners and States, - about the need for robust protection interventions, informed by principled guidance. These Guidelines are part of both a prevention and a response arsenal!

It was nearly ten years ago that the first UNHCR guidelines on addressing sexual violence, were issued. It has taken time - but I think we are there - to generate broad acceptance of the fact that SGBV is a violation of basic human rights, of significance and of long reach in the lives of victims and survivors who have already been traumatised by their forced displacement. SGBV touches persons in many countries - in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Victims are left with physical, emotional and psychological scars.

Sexual and gender based violence manifests itself in well-documented atrocities committed during armed conflict in the full glare of international media. It is also a closed doors practice perpetrated by partners or family members. No society or culture is spared. Women and girls disproportionately suffer, even though in some instances men and boys are also victims.

SGBV is far from an easy problem for UNHCR to identify and deal with. Sexual and gender-based violence is a recurring phenomenon throughout the refugee life cycle, not always detected, inadequately deterred and rarely fully addressed. How is a lone Protection or Field Officer in a remote field location to respond when s/he is confronted with reports of rape or sexual exploitation? How does a child protection agency respond when evidence comes to light that those entrusted with foster care responsibility for unaccompanied and separated children have been sexually abusing them? And most painfully how do we respond when those implicated are from within our midst? These are among the issues on which the Guidelines offer some counsel. The Guidelines endeavour to respond to what are both practical and legal challenges in a sensitive, principled but pragmatic manner - informed by international human rights standards. They base themselves on recent developments in international human rights, international humanitarian law. They reflect the experience we have accumulated and the best practices brought into play in a number of field operations. The Guidelines are in a user friendly format, supported by a CD-ROM with a wealth of reference materials.

More specifically, the contributions made by the Guidelines include:

  • to provide the overall framework for establishing a comprehensive response to meet the protection needs of victims of SGBV, with the full involvement of protection officers;
  • to provide the conceptual framework critical to understanding and dealing with gender-related persecution in the asylum process;
  • to provide a framework on how SGBV programmes can be monitored and evaluated for effectiveness;
  • to address the need for all refugees to be informed and be aware of their basic rights;
  • to address the importance of ensuring that victims/survivors have access to legal process and redress, using innovative devices like mobile courts to reach areas that are traditionally served by the local court system;
  • to highlight the need for access to medical and psycho-social support for victims/survivors;
  • to emphasize the need to ensure full participation of refugees in the design and implementation of appropriate prevention and response strategies.

As can be seen from this multiplicity of purposes, protection of women and of children, in this and other areas, ranges across a broad spectrum of activities. It is not only a legal construct, even while its practice is and has to be framed by an important set of internationally agreed legal principles. Equally it goes beyond physical security. Rather, the protection function is multi-faceted, dynamic and action based; it has overarching goals but it is performed through a wide range of specific activities ranging from interventions for individuals, through programme implementation for populations to working with authorities and other partners in promotion, training and capacity building activities. This ambitious vision of protection is what informs the strategy outlined in the Guidelines before you.

Obviously, the Guidelines without implementation are not enough. Too often there can be a gap between policy guidelines and their implementation. This was brought out, not least, in the three Independent Evaluations/Assessments of UNHCR activities in the area of the protection of refugee women, children and carrying out of the community services function, carried out in the last two years. As the Assistant High Commissioner stressed, UNHCR will follow up resolutely on implementation of the findings of those evaluations.

The Guidelines do have potential to make a real difference. The process leading up to their finalization has been broad based and field driven - from the 2001 Lessons Learnt Conference on SGBV, the Dialogue with Refugee Women to the extensive field testing in 32 countries in all regions of the world with the participation of more than sixty key partners. The Guidelines highlight the importance of UNHCR staff working closely with each other across functions (programme, protection, community services, security, field and management), as well as the importance of partnerships with NGOs and the refugee community.

The Agenda for Protection brings home a salient point here. It underlines that while there is a wealth of international norms, policies and guidelines to improve the protection and care of refugee women and children, in practice there is still a gap in terms of implementation, not only at the level of institutions but also within the international community more generally. Protection of refugee women and children is a core activity for UNHCR. It has also, however, to be accorded priority attention by all concerned states. To provide better protection, Guidelines do not suffice. A three-pronged approach is called for, which proceeds within a rights based framework, which contains targeted actions and which is solidly premised on mainstreaming both gender equality and age sensitivity. These are not my words, although I strongly adhere to them. They are the words of all - states, NGOs and others - who crafted the Agenda and whose implementation can only depend on sustained will and committed partnership.

For our part, the Guidelines are already being complemented by other protection initiatives designed to enhance accountability for protection performance. These include Protection Management Workshops for senior protection officers and Representatives, as well as the Protection Learning Programmes for all staff , with key modules introduced addressing how to prevent and respond to SGBV. In addition, UNHCR has a Code of Conduct which should help to ensure that our staff are clear about what constitutes appropriate behaviour for humanitarian workers and what types of standards are to be observed in relation to persons of concern. The Code strengthens the culture of accountability towards the people we serve.

Let me end these remarks by thanking colleagues in DIP and DOS who have worked so hard on these Guidelines. And I would be remiss if I also did not register our appreciation of the great work by our field-based colleagues who were involved in the field tests and on whom now the burden of implementation substantially has to fall.

Thank you