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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - A Woman's Lot ...

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - A Woman's Lot ...
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
Refugee women are abused over and over.

She was raped ... and then blamed by her local community

As genocide engulfed Rwanda in 1994, the teenage girl remembers her father gathering his family around him. "He said he did not want to see us dying and slaughtered in front of his eyes, and maybe with good luck some of us would survive," 18-year-old Ange recalls now. Together with one brother, Ange fled across the border to neighbouring Zaire, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees, but even among this appalling misery the two youngsters were ostracized for ethnic reasons and forced to live in the bush, surviving on handouts from strangers. When they returned home to Gitarama the children were told their parents and five brothers and sisters had been killed and, denied a proper burial, their bodies eaten by dogs. Two sisters survived the massacre by hiding themselves under their parents corpses.

Ange has been forced to grow up very quickly amidst this chaos and killing and like many young females, become an adult overnight. She received some assistance from local organizations which rebuilt the family home. But though Ange is only 18 years old, she must now look after her two younger sisters aged 12 and 15, a 10-year-old brother and the child she conceived after being raped in 1996. Far from receiving help at the time, she was humiliated and blamed by her local community for that incident.

Ange's tale is brutal, but not atypical of the experience of millions of refugee women around the world. All displaced peoples are stripped of many of their human rights the moment they flee their homes, but in the case of women and children (see separate story page 4) abuses and problems can be repeated over and over again. Women are often forced to be not only mothers, but to become breadwinners for an entire family in the absence of menfolk who may have been killed or become fighters in nearby wars. In conflict zones they risk rape or abuse by gunmen, and even when they reach apparent safety in a neighbouring country, sexual exploitation may continue. Women are more likely to be malnourished compared with males and suffer under a rash of discriminatory practices ranging from receiving smaller food rations to legal wrangles over such things as land inheritance.

Governments and humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR in the last few years developed special guidelines and programmes to meet the needs of women. In Rwanda, for instance, where 70 percent of the population is female, UNHCR has initiated a $7 million project called the Rwanda Women's Initiative. Through a series of inter-related schemes, the initiative aims to enhance the human rights of women, reduce the violence and sexual abuse directed against them and ensure that they are fully integrated in Rwandan society. "The results so far are encouraging" says Armineh Arakelian, UNHCR's regional advisor for women, "but the needs are still great" especially at a time when fewer financial resources are available from traditional donors.

Ange will need all the help she can get. She has dropped out of school and instead sells banana beer with her sister to help feed her family a diet of bananas and potatoes. She rarely sleeps at night because groups of armed thugs who participated in the original genocide are again operating near her home. One of her parents' killers was identified by her sister and imprisoned but Ange knows only that "my parents will never come back."

She is one of an estimated 60,000 Rwandan children who are responsible for their families because their parents were killed or disappeared. Between them these heads of household, three quarters of them girls, care for more than 300,000 children, according to a recent study undertaken by World Vision and the U.N. Children's Agency, UNICEF. The report mirrored the experiences of Ange, underlining that 95 percent of the affected youngsters have no access to health care or education, have few household or agricultural tools, are frequently sexually abused and denied land and houses their parents left behind.

"The family structures that used to support the child no longer exist," the report said. That is true in most refugee situations around the world.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)