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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy High Commissioner, to the Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, Beijing, 5 September 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy High Commissioner, to the Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, Beijing, 5 September 1995

5 September 1995

Madam Chairperson, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The word "refugee" has no gender. Yet, more than half of the world's refugee population is female. Out of a total of over 27 million refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons falling under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the vast majority are women and girls.

It is therefore a great honour for me to address the Fourth World Conference on Women on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the High Commissioner, regrets that she cannot be present here today. At the request of the U.N. Secretary General, she has had to travel urgently to the Great Lakes region of Africa to seek a humanitarian solution which would allow some two million refugee women, children and men to return home voluntarily in safety and dignity.

The objectives of the Fourth World Conference on Women are of fundamental importance to the mandate of UNHCR to protect and assist refugees and find solutions to their problem. In 118 countries around the world, our colleagues are grappling right now with issues central to this Conference: protecting women from violence and the trauma of war; enabling them to return home without fear or coercion; ensuring their equal access to basic assistance; and helping them to become self-supporting. In countries as far apart as Rwanda or Russia, Burundi or Bosnia, Liberia or Somalia, the proliferation of vicious internal conflicts in recent years have uprooted millions of people, and inflicted untold suffering, especially on women and children. At the same time, opportunities for refugees to return home, to countries such as Mozambique, Afghanistan and Angola, Cambodia and Tajikistan have highlighted the positive role of women in rebuilding war-torn societies.

UNHCR is convinced that if solutions are to be found to refugee problems, if more displacement is to be avoided, then the refugee and displaced women must be made equal partners in the strategy to protect and assist them, and to prevent and resolve refugee problems. Whether in Tuzla and Goma, Chiapas and Peshawar, refugee and displaced women provide a core of stability and strength in societies shattered by conflict. Through their efforts, family life is gradually rebuilt and normalcy restored. Whether in the context of emergencies or voluntary repatriation, women are not only victims. They are essential resources for their own development and that of their communities.

Spurred by the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women in 1985, UNHCR adopted a policy of integrating gender concerns in all its programmes. A primary objective is to protect the human rights of refugee and displaced women, and ensure their equal access to humanitarian assistance. A fundamental tenet is to ensure the participation of refugee women in the planning and implementation of projects.

While much has been achieved, UNHCR would be the first to admit that much still remains to be done. Let me briefly outline what has been achieved, the concerns and constraints which remain, and what more must be done to overcome them.

The horrific incidents of rape and assault in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda highlight the deliberate victimization of women and girls in modern conflicts, where often the very objective is to uproot civilians through terror. UNHCR has publicly condemned the use of deliberate violence against women as a tool of war. In this context, UNHCR welcomes the establishment of the International Tribunals to punish the perpetrators. UNHCR also strongly urges Governments to grant asylum to women who face sexual violence for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group, or who fear persecution for having transgressed social mores or prescribed national policy.

Unfortunately, however, asylum does not always provide the desired protection. Refugee women and girls continue to be attacked, exploited and abused, particularly in camps located in areas where security is fragile.

The protection of refugee women is a major priority for UNHCR. It involves not only monitoring human rights legal standards which is critical. It also involves concrete, pragmatic action by UNHCR staff, partners in the field and women themselves to ensure the safety and welfare of uprooted populations. Measures to improve security have included better camp design, training and support of national police and camp security authorities, as well as setting up and supporting women's groups and strengthening social services. A UNHCR pilot project for the protection of Somali refugee women in northern Kenya has demonstrated that violence can be reduced by a combination of security and social measures which are designed by and involve the women themselves.

Based on its field experience and that of NGOs, UNHCR recently published guidelines for field workers on preventing and responding to sexual violence against refugees, and is working to ensure their application in its activities. To involve and empower the women themselves, UNHCR is preparing a major initiative in early 1996 to increase human rights awareness among refugee women.

The risk of sexual exploitation of women is increased when assistance is distributed through male - dominated refugee committees. Therefore, ensuring the equal participation of women in camp management and distribution systems for food, education, health, including reproductive health, and other basic services is another major priority for UNHCR. We have undertaken extensive training of our staff and that of our implementing partners on a gender-sensitive approach to programming. In order to communicate better with refugee and displaced women, understand their problems and involve them, UNHCR has launched aggressive affirmative action, at the instigation of the High Commissioner, to increase the proportion of female professional staff in the organization, which currently stands at 32 percent.

Because education is a key to empowerment, UNHCR has sought, with UNICEF's help, to promote educational opportunities even in the emergency stage in a number of refugee situations. However, among the 600,000 refugee children who receive primary education funded by UNHCR worldwide, the number of refugee girls is still far too low. This is because economic constraints and cultural and societal norms continue to prevent many of them from going to school.

Although uprootedness is a human tragedy, women, who are often the key components of economic and family life, have a particularly important role to play when it comes to rebuilding and rehabilitating families, communities and societies devastated by war. The experience of Guatemalan refugees demonstrates the valuable role of women in the search for peace. The voices of the women must be heard in the process of national reconciliation and reconstruction. Lasting solutions to refugee problems cannot be found unless peace and development involve all, regardless of race, religion, political opinion or gender. Thus, UNHCR focuses its skills training, its income generation projects in the refugee camps, and its community-based quick impact projects to reintegrate refugees when they return home, on improving the status of women, particularly single women and women-headed households. These initiatives often enable women to crucially contribute to the rehabilitation and development of their societies.

We have come a long way since Nairobi, but unfortunately, we are still far from achieving our goals. UNHCR is convinced that if further progress is to be made, action must be taken on three fronts:

Firstly, as a field oriented organization, UNHCR is committed to pursue all necessary steps to ensure consistent and effective application of its policy and guidelines on refugee women. We are reinforcing measures to improve programme delivery and are strengthening our own staff. We are further enhancing our cooperation with sister agencies, as we have done recently with UNFPA on the issue of reproductive health, and with NGOs, who are not only the strongest advocates of refugee women, but also our most valuable partners.

Secondly, we call upon Governments to stop the erosion of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and refugee protection. How can violence against women be reduced if arms flow freely into areas where refugees are residing, or if refugees and displaced persons are forcibly pushed back into danger? The right to seek asylum and the responsibility of the Governments to ensure the safety of refugees, returnees and displaced persons must be upheld. As the UN agency mandated to provide international protection, UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to assist and support Governments to meet these obligations.

Thirdly, the problems of refugee and displaced women must be seen and addressed as a major human rights and development issue. Many of the constraints in empowering refugee and displaced women go to the heart of cultural, social and legal norms of the host and home countries concerned, and cannot be resolved in isolation from those faced by women in general. UNHCR welcomes the opportunity offered by this Conference to address the specific problems of refugee and displaced women within the wider context of the global improvement of the status of women, of enhancing their capacity and improving the opportunities open to them. UNHCR fully supports the Draft Global Platform of Action, and is ready to play its part in developing clear implementation strategies and follow-up mechanisms.

In the final analysis, Madam Chairperson, refugee problems are a symptom of deeper political, economic, and social ills which plague the world. The situation of refugee and displaced women cannot be improved without political commitment and concrete action to prevent conflicts and to overcome poverty, inequity and the denial of human rights. The tide must be turned decisively away from ignorance, intolerance, violence, strife and discrimination. The Draft Global Platform of Action rightly emphasizes the crucial role of women in promoting peace, democracy and development. Investing in women's capabilities, ensuring their protection against violence and empowering them to exercise their rights not only furthers the welfare of women themselves, it is the surest way to promote democracy and development, peace and justice in the world.

Thank you, Madam Chairperson.