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Inter-Regional Consultation on Women's Land and Property Rights under Situations of Conflict and Reconstruction, "Peace for Homes, Homes for Peace," Kigali | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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Inter-Regional Consultation on Women's Land and Property Rights under Situations of Conflict and Reconstruction, "Peace for Homes, Homes for Peace," Kigali | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

16 February 1998

Distinguished Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be with you today, and it is an honour to address a group of people with such rich and diverse experiences. I wish to thank the Government of Rwanda for hosting this inter-regional consultation on women's land and property rights in situations of conflict and reconstruction. I am happy that my Office has been able to provide support to some of the participants, and to the overall organization of the meeting. It is also very encouraging that the consultation has been made possible by the joint efforts of different United Nations agencies.

The topic you will discuss is of great importance. Women's rights are now clearly established as human rights. They include the right of women to equal inheritance and ownership of land and property, that is unfortunately often disregarded. This becomes critical in societies emerging from conflicts, in which many women, having lost their husbands, become heads of household. It happens very frequently when single or widowed mothers return to their country after having spent a period of time in exile as refugees. For this reason UNHCR is interested in contributing to your discussions, and learning from your experiences.

Societies have a moral obligation to respect the right of women to inheritance and ownership of land and property. But they also have a concrete interest in upholding such a right. In communities torn by conflicts, women almost invariably constitute a majority of the population. Many, as I have just said, have become heads of household. Disregarding their ownership rights marginalizes them, thus depriving a large part of the community of its means of livelihood. This creates poverty, which causes - in turn - new tensions and conflicts. The spiral of underdevelopment and violence continues, affecting not only the welfare of women and of their families, but also the peace, stability and economic prosperity of entire societies, and of countries and regions. The respect of this fundamental human right - the right of women to inherit land and own property - is therefore an important element of a stable, peaceful and socially just society.

On the other hand, women who have full and legally recognized access to their means of livelihood, can provide an essential contribution towards the reconstruction of societies emerging from conflicts. The links which women develop within their communities are deep and diverse. Many women have children. Perhaps more often than men, and particularly in societies where basic resources are scarce, they rely on the solidarity of members of their community. Any woman in a village, or in a refugee camp, will tell you how important it is to know that her neighbour can help her fetch water from a distant well, if she is too busy caring for her children.

It is primarily women who suffer when communities are torn and divided. Preventing or healing such wounds is very important in post-conflict societies. In this respect, and if given the adequate means, women can play a key role in bringing together divided communities. We often say that women must be empowered - what better example, in order for them to meaningfully play a powerful role in rebuilding torn societies, than to insure the full respect of their rights?

My Office has a keen interest in upholding the right of women to inherit and own property, and especially land. Our beneficiaries - refugees, displaced persons, and returnees - are people uprooted by conflicts. Many of them - often a majority - are women. And while all returnees must face the daunting challenge of restoring social and economic ties with their community, from which they have often been separated in traumatic ways, in many countries women returnees must face the additional problem of discriminatory laws which do not permit them to inherit or own land. Not only have they lost the support of their husband, but their husband's family can also claim their property by way of inheritance. In such cases, returnee women are denied access to resources that ensure their livelihood and the livelihood of their children.

For this reason, my office - whose mandate is to protect and assist refugees, and to ensure that they are not discriminated against when they return to their country - pays special attention to issues affecting returnee women, including their legal problems. Helping returnees to obtain proper citizenship documents - and hence to have their right to property restored - is an important activity of UNHCR worldwide. Working on legislation is equally important. In countries as diverse as Liberia and Guatemala, for example, we have worked with Governments and other partners in amending laws which exclude women from the inheritance of land. Promotion of women's rights and legal assistance to women for the recovery of their property is an important component of our programmes in Rwanda as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is indispensable that the international community mobilizes very substantial resources to assist Governments in addressing the challenges of post-conflict rehabilitation and long-term development. There will be no sustainable reconstruction, however, without the reconciliation of divided communities. I believe that to achieve this goal, large bilateral and multilateral cooperation projects in support of Governments must be complemented by grassroots, low-cost, quality projects, targeting civil society, and especially groups - such as returnee women - which are particularly vulnerable, but which can also be key catalysts in overcoming the divisions of post-conflict communities. Humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR, and its partner NGOs, can play an important role in this respect. I was happy, while recently travelling to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and during my current visit to Rwanda, to assess the positive impact of our Bosnian and Rwandan Women's Initiatives on their beneficiaries, but even more so on their communities. I wish to pursue and expand these initiatives, which promote the participation of civil society in post-conflict reconstruction.

Let me also add that it is of particular significance that this meeting takes place in Kigali, the capital of a country which has undergone the horror of genocide, perhaps the greatest abomination that humanity can cause to itself. We all know how inadequately the international community has dealt with the Rwandan genocide - in failing to prevent to it, and in responding insufficiently to its consequences. Rwanda is making courageous efforts to heal its wounds. It is important that we work with its people in the process of reconstruction and reconciliation. Your efforts to restore and uphold some of the fundamental rights of women in situations of conflict and reconstruction, will also help prevent the unspeakable tragedy which occurred here less than four years ago, from happening again, in Rwanda and in other countries. Women whose rights are respected will be a strong and powerful force against conflict and violence. As the Rwandan returnee women who manage a community centre in Kigali told me yesterday Women will rebuild societies if they are helped to rebuild their own lives.

Thank you.