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3.4 Women and Girls at Risk

Submission under this category

Refugee women and girls prioritized for resettlement consideration by UNHCR under this submission category are those who:

  • face protection risks in the country of asylum; and/or
  • have specific needs arising from past persecution/ violence that cannot be addressed in the country of asylum; and/or
  • live in circumstances of severe hardship resulting in exposure to exploitation and abuse, and/or
  • are at increased risk due to the lack of family, community or state protection.

Women and girls face multiple and intersecting protection risks and discrimination as refugees. Gender-based violence (GBV) can be a reason for flight, can occur during flight and can be a protection risk in the country of asylum. As an international protection response, resettlement may be an appropriate response to the protection needs of survivors of GBV or individuals at risk of GBV, allowing them to rebuild their lives in a safe environment. Resettlement countries often give priority to the consideration of women and girls at risk, based on protection needs. See the Country Chapters to check for restrictions or requirements, notably regarding the inclusion of a husband or male relative in the resettlement case. The Country Chapters also contain information regarding the capacity to receive emergency or urgent cases under this category.

Protection risks in the country of asylum may include the risk of detention, expulsion and/or refoulement, retaliation, as well as risks of GBV (see below).

Specific needs arising from past persecution/violence can impact the protection situation in the country of asylum and the individual’s capacity to cope with the challenges of displacement. Individuals may face continuing effects of persecution and or violence and necessary services and support may not be available or accessible.

Circumstances of severe hardship can lead to increased risk of GBV including sexual abuse and exploitation. Barriers to safe and affordable housing and healthcare in urban settings, precarious legal status as well as limited access to livelihood opportunities and self-reliance place women (as well as children and other dependents) at risk. 

Displacement can disrupt family and/or community protection mechanisms, which can expose women to incrased risk of GBV. Women with disabilities, female headed households and older women may be particularly vulnerable. Displacement can also expose refugee girls and adolescents to a high risk of GBV, abuse and/or exploitation including child marriage, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM). Girls may also face barriers to exercising their fundamental rights including to education, healthcare, shelter and livelihoods. Unaccompanied or separated girls, girls with disabilities and girls with caretaking responsibilities may be at particular risk in the country of asylum. See Children and Adolescents at Risk.

Considerations about eligibility for resettlement under this category should be informed by a gender-sensitive assessment of an individual’s protection needs in the context of the wider protection environment, including insecurity and armed conflict; lack of access to protection services and assistance, including medical, psychological, social and trauma support services, severe economic hardship and social isolation.

What is gender-based violence (GBV)?

GBV is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on gender inequality and socially ascribed (i.e. gender) differences between males and females. It includes acts that inflict physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, and other deprivations of liberty. These acts can occur in public or in private by known or unknown individuals. GBV disproportionately impacts women and girls.

GBV can manifest as rape, sexual assault, physical assault, forced marriage, denial of resources, opportunities, or services as well as psychological or emotional abuse. GBV includes intimate partner violence, so-called ‘honour-related crimes,’ child sexual abuse, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and trafficking including for the purpose of sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, domestic servitude, and servile forms of marriage. Depending on the context, some individuals may be at increased risk of GBV, for example, female or child- headed households, unaccompanied and separated children, and women and girls with disabilities and elderly women.

UNHCR and its protection partners implement specialized programmes in the GBV prevention, mitigation and response, including GBV case management, in accordance with the GBV Minimum Standards. According to UNHCR’s Policy on the Prevention of, Risk Mitigation and Response to Gender-based Violence, all members of UNHCR’s workforce, including resettlement personnel, must adopt a survivor-centred approach and proceed with the utmost care for the safety of the survivor and affected others, especially children. Survivors must be informed about available services and referred to them, if requested.

See 3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk for guidance on GBV and children, considerations on custody and the requirement for a BID or BIA in specific situations, including child marriage.

See Interviewing GBV survivors in 4.4 The Resettlement Interview for guidance on new GBV incidents or risks disclosed during resettlement processing.

See 3.3 Legal and/or Physical Protection Needs for GBV faced by LGBTIQ+ refugees.

Child marriage

Child marriage, where one or both spouses are under 18, is unlawful under international law and widely considered a form of GBV. It is often the result of harmful social norms and gender inequality and disproportionately affects adolescent girls. As such, children at risk of early marriage may be prioritized for resettlement consideration, based on a consideration of their best interests through Best Interests Procedures (BIP). Resettlement can help address many of the contributing factors for child marriage, including providing livelihood opportunities for families as well as education and other options outside of marriage for girls and boys.

Child marriage is not legally recognized under the national laws of resettlement States (depending on the age of the child), and in some resettlement countries, extraterritorial jurisdiction for statutory rape may apply to the spouse of a married child, while parents or caregivers who arranged the marriage may also be liable to prosecution. The resettlement Country Chapters are a useful resource to understand restrictions on child marriage in a given resettlement country.

UNHCR does not submit married children for resettlement with their spouse unless:

  • There are compelling protection or medical needs within the Resettlement Case and resettlement is the most appropriate option for addressing the identified needs; and
  • The married child wishes to be resettled, and
  • A BIA or BID has assessed or determined that resettlement is in the best interests of the married child and any other children to be impacted. See 3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk for guidance on the requirement of a BID or BIA for married children considered for resettlement.

Suspending resettlement processing until the concerned child reaches the age of 18 may be appropriate, depending on the protection needs within the Case, the views of the child and applicable laws and the requirements of prospective resettlement countries. At this age of greater maturity, the individual may be better able to express their views and needs and exercise their rights.

Resettlement of a married child without the spouse may be considered when this is assessed or determined to be in their best interests and the best interests of other children to be impacted. The Resettlement Case composition could, according to the views of the child and findings of a Best Interests Procedure, include the child’s parents and/or other family members/caregivers, for example.

In the event that the parents/ caregivers of a married child are identified for resettlement without the child in question, serious attention must be paid to the protection risks their resettlement may create for the married child left behind, including the risk of abandonment, lack of family support in the event of pregnancy and childbirth and vulnerability to GBV and other protection risks. UNHCR should only consider resettlement for the parents/caregivers of a married child in the case of acute protection risks, duly weighing the protection benefits against the risks to the child, in consultation with (child) protection colleagues.

Polygamous marriage

The majority of resettlement States do not admit polygamous families for resettlement and do not tolerate the practice of polygamy on their territory. As such, polygamous families are usually unsuitable for resettlement consideration.

While whole polygamous families are unlikely to be accepted for resettlement, resettling part of a polygamous family (namely a polygamous husband with one selected wife and their biological children), can result in permanent family separation for other spouses and children dependent on the polygamous husband. Resettlement in such cases can create protection risks and vulnerabilities in already at-risk populations, and should therefore be conducted on an exceptional basis, in light of (1) urgent medical or protection needs, taking into account (2) the best interests of affected children and (3) possible protection risks to other spouses.

  1. Urgent medical concerns should meet the threshold for submission under the Medical Needs resettlement submission category. Urgent protection concerns should involve serious and imminent threats to an individual’s life or freedom. Resettlement should be the only available protection intervention that can address the identified needs.
  2. The best interests of affected children should be determined when considering a Resettlement Case composed of a polygamous husband/ father and one wife). There are three general scenarios for how children may be affected, all of which involve a high risk of permanent family separation. A Best Interests Determination (BID) should therefore be conducted where:
    • A child, who is not the biological child of the selected spouse in the case, is not under resettlement consideration with their father and would remain with their mother who is caring for the child.
    • A child, who is not the biological child of the selected spouse in the case, is being considered for resettlement with their father, and their mother consents for the child to be resettled with the father.
    • Either of the above 2 scenarios, but where there is a dispute between the father and mother regarding whether or not the child should be resettled. That is, the father wants the child to be resettled with him, and the mother wishes the child to stay with her.
  3. The legitimate protection concerns of other affected persons should be balanced against identified resettlement needs. Specifically, protection risks to other spouses not included in the Resettlement Case should be carefully weighed, taking into account, for example, the effects of social stigma related to divorce or abandonment as well as the risk of a serious deterioration in physical and/or material security caused by the resettlement. 

UNHCR offices in countries where polygamy is widely practiced are recommended to establish clear accountabilities in resettlement SOPs for the balancing of rights, interests and protection risks to affected children and spouses, including the need to consult relevant protection focal points and ensure that the assessment and its outcome is clearly documented. If, after considering these factors, the Resettlement Case is recommended for submission, the Case should be reviewed by the Accountable Officer for resettlement in the office or the relevant regional bureau, according to SOPs. Cases should be submitted to the US or Canada. For polygamous individuals submitted on urgent medical grounds, UNHCR will need to approach other resettlement countries on a case-by-case.

Resettlement counselling

Where part of a polygamous family is recommended for resettlement consideration/ submission, all impacted and reachable family members should be fully counselled on the implications of resettlement, including the risk of permanent family separation and (low) prospects for family reunification in the future. Note that offices are requested to limit the local development of (consent) forms and templates regarding polygamy and resettlement and to obtain prior approval by DIP when such documents contain the UNHCR logo.

Where all members of a polygamous family are recommended for resettlement consideration/ submission, and the Accountable Officer for resettlement and the resettlement country have agreed to submit the family into several separated Resettlement Cases, all individuals should be fully counselled on: the risk of permanent family separation due to split decisions (e.g. one or more individuals/Cases are denied by the resettlement country); the risk of family separation within the resettlement country (e.g. Resettlement Cases are resettled to different parts of a resettlement country) and the lack of legal recognition in the resettlement country of polygamous unions and the resulting denial of associated marital and other rights to other spouses (e.g. inheritance).

Counselling should be provided to affected children in accordance with their age and level of maturity through child-friendly procedures. See UNHCR’s Best Interests Procedure Guidelines and 3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk.

Documenting the situation of women and girls at risk in the RRF

The RRF should include information relating to the heightened risk facing a woman or girl, considering external risk factors and the personal situation of the refugee concerned. Relevant supporting documentation, assessments or reports should be included in the resettlement submission, in line with data protection and privacy principles (see 2.3 Data protection in resettlement). Additional general guidance on sharing child protection information can be found in chapter 3.5 of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines.

Specific needs data that is necessary and proportionate for the purpose of facilitating settlement service provision should be set out in Section 6 “Specific Needs” of the RRF. This will help ensure that relevant information about services is made available to the individual upon arrival. Sharing of GBV-related specific needs data should be based on consent and in accordance with the GBV Guiding Principles.

See 3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk for guidance on BIA and BID.

Addressing protection needs of women and girls at risk throughout processing

The resettlement caseworker should ensure that women and girls at risk are kept apprised of their resettlement status on a regular basis. Where there are ongoing acute protection needs, the caseworker should refer the individual to specialized services, based on consent. In addition, resettlement colleagues should provide women and girls at risk with relevant information on where to receive support, as appropriate. In the case of girls, a plan of action should be developed in the context of BIP, according to operational SOPs. See 3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk.