Closing Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Inter-Agency Symposium on Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, Geneva, 30 June 1995
Madam Chairperson, Madam Executive Director, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Among the more than 27 million refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons falling under the responsibility of my Office, half of them are women and girls. Significant progress has been made in developing specific guidelines on refugee women in recent years. Progress has however been piecemeal in incorporating these basic principles into the day to day management of refugee situations. Moreover, for too long refugee women have been portrayed as particularly vulnerable. This depiction does not however do justice to the pivotal social and economic roles women play, as well as to their contributions to maintaining family and community life and bringing about solutions to refugee situations.
In most refugee situations we have done reasonably well in meeting the immediate protection and assistance needs of the refugees with the excellent assistance of our partners. In the field of reproductive health however we have still a long way to go. It is not only an issue for refugee women but also relates to the rights and responsibilities of men. I am therefore very pleased that we were able to co-sponsor this inter-agency symposium on reproductive health in refugee situations and draw upon your extensive expertise. I am impressed by the work achieved so far and let me take this opportunity to thank all the agencies and participants for their contributions.
In September, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing will aim to adopt a "Global Platform of Action". The draft document pays considerable attention to refugee women and, in particular, the impact of war and violence upon them. It is important that we approach the Beijing meeting with concrete results and an action plan for the future. Therefore the outcome of this symposium is indeed very timely. I am not a specialist myself on reproductive health and will therefore refrain from making expert statements. However, the conclusions we have just adopted are very important ones and within this context I would like to raise four issues. The first issue relates to the protection concerns of refugee women. The rape of women in northern Kenya, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda has brought dramatically to the foreground the use of sexual violence as a means of persecution for reasons of race, ethnicity, nationality or political opinion. UNHCR's Executive Committee has condemned this practice which is not only a serious human rights violation as well as a breach of humanitarian law in armed conflict situations.
Protection of refugee women should include the granting of refugee status as well as measures to safeguard their physical security, material assistance, counselling and opportunities for solutions. The Guidelines on Sexual Violence in addition to the planned manual on reproductive health combined with more qualified female staff are important steps toward strengthening our protection and assistance role in the field. The second issue relates to prevention. In refugee situations we focus primarily on preventive health care which is based on a multi-sectoral approach requiring the timely and adequate provision of shelter, sanitation, food, water and health services. It is predominantly the task of women to provide food, water and shelter for their family. Therefore, women's health affects the refugee community as a whole. In too many refugee situations, the problems of sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, family planning or AIDS have not been dealt with because the need for them was not recognized. Appropriate reproductive health services should therefore be an integral part of any preventive health care strategy, involving women and men equally.
As a third point, I would argue that any such strategy should aim to be self-supportive and sustainable. Our focus should not be limited to providing reproductive health care in refugee settings, but should include measures which can continue to be utilized by people once they have returned home. In this context, I would stress the importance of adequately trained refugee health workers who can benefit the community both in the country of origin and asylum. In some instances, they can provide a "springboard" for the rehabilitation of the basic health sector of war-torn societies.
Finally, let me stress the strengthening of partnerships among agencies, governments, the refugees and host communities. Reproductive health involves a wide variety of specialized issues and, given the scale of the problem, go beyond the capacity of any single agency. I am therefore pleased that from the outset of this important initiative, we have established a partnership among United Nations, governmental and non-governmental agencies. I look forward to our continuing close collaboration and sharing of technical advice and to developing concrete working relationships as we have with UNFPA.
However, our most important partners are the refugees themselves. Reproductive health touches upon the most basic norms, values, and principles of society. To succeed we must make sure that the refugees participate fully in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of the programmes. Without their commitment or cooperation, the programmes will not be sustainable. It is important therefore that the culture, norms and practices of the refugees and the host communities are fully respected.
To implement a preventive reproductive health strategy will pose important challenges both in terms of financial and human resources. I believe however that preventive measures are cheaper than curative ones. Moreover, everyone working with refugees should receive training to ensure that the principles are effectively translated into policies and programmes.
In concluding, I would like to express once again my appreciation for the excellent work accomplished and the commitment of my Office to implement an effective reproductive health strategy in refugee situations. I hope that the results of this symposium will not be an end in itself but will form the basis for further discussions and actions geared toward concrete results. I count on your commitment and expertise to assist us in this task. We owe it to the millions of refugee women and their families to provide them with the means to ensure their reproductive health.