Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

UNHCR remedial actions and preventive measures against sexual exploitation and abuse of refugees

Press releases

UNHCR remedial actions and preventive measures against sexual exploitation and abuse of refugees

22 October 2002

The following list of remedial measures and preventive actions have been taken by UNHCR and its partners to strengthen UNHCR's core protection function by enhancing the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence.

The first section describes specific measures taken in West Africa, which was the focus of a joint UNHCR/Save the Children-UK study on sexual violence/exploitation and refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The study was initiated by UNHCR in 2001 to gather concrete data on the nature and scope sexual and gender based violence affecting refugee/returnee children in West Africa and on the responses of UN agencies, NGOs , local communities and the children themselves. The results of this assessment were to help UNHCR and child protection agencies to strengthen their programmes in the region.

The second section focuses on actions taken in the rest of Africa. UNHCR recognises that sexual and gender-based violence is not confined to West Africa alone, so the third section details global preventive and remedial measures.


Upon receipt of a confidential report in November 2001, UNHCR began implementing a series of specific preventive and remedial actions aimed at better protecting refugee women and more effectively addressing the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children in West Africa. Simultaneously, UNHCR requested the Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York to conduct an investigation into the allegations.

By early January 2002, individual country action plans were being developed in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Among their first priorities were protecting victims and strengthening confidential reporting systems; increasing the number of protection staff on the ground, especially female; increasing awareness through training and education; identifying persons most at risk; and expanding and improving existing aid programmes within the limits of available financial resources.

By April 2002, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Protection from Sexual; exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises composed of concerned UN agencies and NGOs had been formed. UNHCR's Africa Bureau appointed a focal point for SGBV in West Africa in March 2002. Shortly afterwards, a regional gender advisor was deployed to the region. At headquarters, a special advisor to the director of the Africa Bureau was appointed in April 2002 to ensure that initiatives taken were continued and expanded to cover activities across the entire African continent. The latter also ensured an effective liaison mechanism between field offices, HQ and UNHCR's operational partners and Executive Committee members based in Geneva who also actively participated in initiatives being taken.

A supplementary budget of US$2.2 million was approved by UNHCR in June 2002 to help Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia address the issue of sexual exploitation more effectively. This budget covers new or extended programmes as well as additional staffing, with emphasis on community services, education and income generation projects aimed at empowering women refugees. By mid-September, a $1 million contribution had been received from the United States towards this specific budget.

A) Accountability of humanitarian workers

In late 2001, staff in Guinea, and Sierra Leone began work on country-specific standards of accountability for the humanitarian community, applicable to all UN agencies and international and local NGOs. These are now in place and are complementary to the recently issued UNHCR Code of Conduct.

B) Improving coordination between aid agencies

Addressing sexual exploitation and abuse can only be achieved through a concerted effort. Over the past 10 months, various inter-agency task forces, committees and working groups were set up regionally, at headquarters and at the UN level to coordinate action plans and identify best practices in a uniform manner.

  • In all three countries, inter-agency task forces hold regular meetings to oversee implementation of the inter-agency action plans and the standards of accountability.
  • In Sierra Leone, the Cooordinating Committee for Prevention for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CCSEA) has developed a resource mapping initiative to consolidate and share expertise in training and implementation of programmes to prevent sexual exploitation among the humanitarian community.

C) Raising awareness in refugee communities and refugee education

  • As part of its preventive measures, UNHCR has concentrated efforts on awareness and education programmes for refugees. Campaigns - including the distribution of pamphlets, posters and questionnaires to refugees - are being used to inform refugees of their entitlements and the various forms of aid available to them. In each case, the emphasis is on the refugees' right to such assistance. It also provides information to them on how to report anyone who attempts to exploit them in exchange for such aid.
  • In Kissidougou, Guinea, a two-day "twinning" event brought refugee and local communities together to discuss such subjects as sexual exploitation, domestic violence, drug abuse, children's rights and education for girls. The event featured music, dance, drama and debates.
  • In Kissidougou and Nzérékoré, Guinea, UNHCR is supporting men's advocacy groups to strengthen men's involvement in the protection of women and children.
  • In Kissidougou, Guinea, a day-long seminar involving local university students and refugee youths examined the role of young people in violence prevention.
  • African videotapes from Nigeria and Ghana featuring messages on the rights of children are being screened in camps, while rap groups have performed concerts with an anti-violence theme.
  • Consultative missions have been undertaken to camps in Guinea to dialogue with refugee leaders on measures which can be undertaken by members of the community themselves to prevent the problem.
  • In Kissidougou, Guinea, "Operation Girl Mothers Back to School" was launched to allow girls who have dropped out of school because of pregnancy to re-enrol. A day-care system for their children has been established and scholarships are being offered.
  • School uniforms, when necessary, were distributed to refugee girls attending G Tech School in Kissidougou, Guinea.
  • In Guinea, a total of 244 female classroom assistants are working in schools in the Kissidougou camps, and another 196 are working in camp schools in Nzérékoré. The assistants were recruited and trained to promote education for girls, to prevent all forms of abuse, and to serve as role models for younger girls.
  • Over 900 students have enrolled in Reproductive Health Literacy classes in the Kissidougou camps, Guinea.
  • NGOs have launched basic human rights workshops focusing on women's rights in Kissidougou, Guinea.
  • Guinean and refugee security staff in camps have received training on gender violence, as well as male NGO staff.

D) Staffing & Training

  • To meet the challenge of rapidly instituting new measures to deal with the situation in West Africa, UNHCR substantially increased its field presence there in the first half of the year. As of late September, 11 planned protection and community services deployments had been sent in the region. In addition, over 40 emergency staff temporarily deployed to deal with the Sierra Leone repatriation / reintegration programme and movements caused by recent unrest in Liberia received training in sexual exploitation and gender-based issues.
  • New posts for protection and community service officers in each of the three countries are being created.
  • A regional workshop for UNHCR staff entitled "Ensuring Effective Protection: Preventing and Responding to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence" was held in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, from April 9-11, 2002. The 28 participants included protection, community services and programme staff working for UNHCR in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Several participants were from the International Rescue Committee's Protection Surge Capacity project. The overall goal of the workshop was to enhance the capacity of the offices in the region to implement UNHCR's protection responsibility to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation, abuse and violence against children (SGBV).
  • In May 2002, a two-day workshop for 28 regional staff from the community services, protection, field, programme and gender sections was held in Freetown, Sierra Leone. They tested a training manual containing material provided by NGOs that will now be used extensively in the field to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence. The workshop highlighted UNHCR's coordinated approach for the three countries and is further evidence of the mainstreaming of the issue of gender-based violence and ways of combating it.
  • By the end of October 2002, all Sierra Leone staff - from senior managers to drivers - will have received basic training in gender-based violence and an introduction to the new UNHCR Code of Conduct and Standards of Accountability.
  • A four-day NGO training workshop was conducted in Sierra Leone for organisations working in the health sector.
  • Legal literacy training has been undertaken in Sierra Leone and Guinea to reinforce the capacity of female refugees, NGOs and government counterparts to contribute more effectively to protecting the human rights of refugee women and children in host countries.

E) Reporting and monitoring

  • In the Port of Freetown, NGOs have set up a reception desk to identify victims of all types of violence among Sierra Leonean refugees returning from Liberia. Cases in need of special attention, pregnant women, the sick and traumatised, and handicapped people are referred to relevant medical facilities, while others are provided information on health facilities in their home areas.
  • Four sexual and gender-based violence committees have been set up areas of refugee return in Sierra Leone to support communities in preventing and dealing with cases of violence.
  • A three-day NGO training seminar focusing on parental responsibility in sexual violence prevention and education was held in Kissidougou, Guinea, and is being repeated in all camps in the area.

F) Building on existing programmes; strengthening support to victims and groups at risk

  • In order to prevent the creation of further risks of sexual exploitation and violence for women and children, various measures for facilitating equal access and control of material resources, assistance and benefits and equal participation of women and children in the decision making processes are being enhanced. Appropriate assistance standards will significantly reduce the vulnerability of refugee women and children.
  • Several new skills-training projects for women were started in Kissidougou and Nzérékoré, Guinea, including tie-dyeing, embroidery, soap making and adult literacy. The training programmes will prepare the refugee women for their eventual reintegration in Sierra Leone. The NGO-administered training programmes are offered for six months.
  • Several centres for young mothers have been built in camps to provide a meeting place for young female refugees as well as legal and social services. In Dabola camp, Guinea, 16 sewing machines were donated to the centre.
  • A pilot inter-agency "post-distribution monitoring" exercise was conducted in a camp in Sierra Leone in July to identify how the food distribution system could be improved to better serve women. The improved system is now being implemented in the rest of the country.
  • Guinea and Liberia have undertaken a study of their assistance distribution systems as well, with the aim of increasing the number and involvement of female employees working in the distribution of aid.
  • In Nzérékoré, NGO staff and a team of refugee volunteers have improved the referral and support system for victims of sexual violence.


In March 2002, all UNHCR offices in Africa were asked to review their operations to ensure that the agency's guidelines for the provision of protection and delivery of assistance were being properly implemented and that checks and balances were in place to minimise any possibility of sexual abuse or other kinds of malpractice. Offices were instructed to immediately inform the Director of the Africa Bureau and the UNHCR Inspector General of "any reports of malpractice or abuse." Since several guidelines dealing with these issues were already in place, the challenge was one of implementation. Country and regional offices responded with a thorough evaluation of their programmes and, where required, implementation of additional preventive and remedial actions. In early September, a second directive was sent to all offices in Africa asking them to institute their own action plans based on the Inter-Agency Plan of Action (IASC) and to identify immediate priorities.

The following list of actions is not exhaustive, but reflects the range of measures taken in all of UNHCR's major African programmes during 2002.

A) Improved coordination with other agencies, local authorities, refugee groups and host Governments.

  • In most countries, task forces and special working groups were established at capital and camp levels to inform implementing partners, local authorities and refugee communities of the events in West Africa to raise their awareness to the issues and to sensitise them to the need to address them.
  • Special emphasis was given to women and children's rights in protection training programmes.
  • Efforts were made to work with governments to strengthen legislation and legal procedures aimed at combating abuse and exploitation.

B) Raising awareness

  • Mass information campaigns outlining refugee rights and entitlements were carried out in all African countries where UNHCR works. Theatre, music and debates are among methods used to raise awareness among refugees and local populations of sexual and gender-based violence.
  • In all countries, regular meetings are being held in refugee camps and communities to allow individuals to raise their concerns.
  • Training sessions for refugee leaders, NGO personnel and local authorities also include information on reproductive health; HIV/AIDS and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases; domestic violence; and, where relevant, female genital mutilation.
  • School curricula have been adapted in many camps to include sexual and gender-related issues.
  • Workshops in Kenya and Tanzania are addressing a broad spectrum of sexual and gender-based violence issues and women and children are being informed of their rights. As a result, the number of refugee girls refusing early marriages and asking for UNHCR intervention is on the increase, as are those reporting rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment.

C) Improving reporting channels and victim support

  • Additional measures have been taken to encourage refugees to report abuses. This includes provisions for confidential access to female UNHCR protection staff and senior management.
  • Numerous refugee youth and women's groups were established or received additional support from UNHCR. These groups disseminate information, facilitate constructive dialogue and offer confidential support to victims of violence and rape.
  • Food, shelter and clothing is provided to survivors of violence and persons at risk where funds permit.

D) Empowering refugee women and children

  • Most African countries have or are planning to implement programmes to ensure greater representation and participation by women in everyday camp life. This is in line with the High Commissioner's five commitments[1] to refugee women.
  • Existing micro-credit schemes are being expanded where funds permit to include more vulnerable refugees. These include environmental projects employing women and an income-generating programme to manufacture sanitary napkins in Djibouti and Eritrean returnee areas. In Gabon, 20 sewing machines were provided to women refugees and scholarship for young girls are being awarded in Kenya.
  • Additional female staff, including women refugees, have been hired, including protection assistants, food distributors, security guards and psycho-social aides. UNHCR has also asked that government-provided security contingents include a reasonable number of women.
  • Some operations have started to register women as heads of household rather than their husbands to ensure that they are the primary beneficiary listed on ration cards.
  • Incentives are being provided to encourage girls to go to school. In Djibouti, for example, WFP is distributing cooking oil to girls from grades 4 to 7.

E) Improving assistance standards and food distribution

  • All countries have identified persons most at risk (young mothers, female-headed households, and separated children) and are focusing preventive and specific assistance measures on these groups.
  • The provision of sanitary napkins for women is being implemented in most camps as one of the High Commissioner's five priorities for refugee women.
  • In a joint UNHCR-WFP programme, some African countries have already started implementing the practice of "food for women, distributed by women".
  • Several African countries have increased monitoring by UNHCR and NGO female staff during food distribution. Others have adopted various monitoring mechanisms to oversee distribution practices.
  • In new refugee influxes, improved gender sensitive standards for shelter, sanitation and other amenities are progressively being applied. Additional, separate shelters are being provided for young female refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo. In Nigeria, the layout of an entire camp is being reviewed to increase the space available for each family.

F. Legal measures

  • Lawyers have been hired to follow-up on all cases that are sent to court for prosecution. Legal assistance centres have also been set up in camps to counsel refugees (Kenya, Tanzania).
  • Mobile courts overseen by national magistrates have been established in the camps to process rape cases (Kenya).

G. Training

  • Two UNHCR regional workshops on "Addressing Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Refugee Settings" were held from 17-19 September 2002 in Lusaka and Pretoria. The workshops promoted common understanding of the key concepts and issues regarding gender, women and children's rights and sexual and gender based violence, including sexual exploitation. Participants included UNHCR staff, operational partners, governmental and non-governmental organisations and other UN agencies from Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique.
  • A regional conference was held by an NGO consortium in Nairobi in September on "Child Protection in Emergencies" and included a one-day session on sexual exploitation which was attended by UNHCR protection and community services staff.
  • A UNHCR child protection officer based in Nairobi undertook missions to Tanzania and Uganda (May and July), in order to inter alia assess issues of SGBV and exploitation and suggest further courses of action.


As a result of the allegations of widespread sexual exploitation and violence against refugees in West Africa, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises was established in April 2002. Its aims were to:

  • address issues of behaviour and conduct among humanitarian workers;
  • review common mechanisms and capacity for protection against sexual exploitation and abuse;
  • review assistance mechanisms;
  • inform donors and the civil society of the actions taken to enforce the "zero tolerance" policy.

UNHCR has actively participated in this Task Force and has chaired the Protection Sub-group. In July, the Task Force adopted an Inter-agency Plan of Action, which has been endorsed by the concerned Heads of UN Agencies. The Plan of Action addresses prevention, response management and implementation issues.

A) Follow up of the Plan of Action

UNHCR is fully committed to the Implementation of the Plan of Action and has thus initiated specific measures to better address sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse in refugee situations:

  • The UNHCR Code of Conduct: UNHCR developed its own Code of Conduct to guide the behaviour and attitude of all UNHCR international and local staff. The Code of Conduct encourages UNHCR staff to live up to the ideals of the United Nations. It explains the standards of conduct that all are expected to be adhere to under the UN Charter and the Staff Regulations and Rules. The High Commissioner, the chairman of the UNHCR Staff Council and members of UNHCR's Senior Management Committee signed the Code of Conduct on 4 September 2002. The new Code is now being circulated to all UNHCR staff worldwide, who will be requested to sign it. Newly drafted clauses addressing the conduct NGO partner agencies will be included in the clauses governing all implementation agreements with NGOs by January 2003.
  • Newly revised "Guidelines on Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and IDPs" have been field tested in some 20 countries and will be finalised for dissemination by the end of 2002. The team leader for the guidelines facilitated the field testing exercises in Abidjan for the West Africa region, Guinea, Thailand and Indonesia. These were combined with training events, discussions with the refugee community and the provision of technical support for the elaboration of plans of action.
  • Mechanisms for accountability to beneficiaries: A protection management training workshop was held in Abidjan and will be followed by regional ones in Damascus and Lusaka. These will focus on accountability for protection management, including for sexual and gender-based violence and more specifically the sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

While some of the above measures can be implemented at little or no cost, others will require additional funding and increased staffing. UNHCR is currently reviewing its standards of assistance worldwide and a questionnaire to help set priorities will be sent out to all offices by the end of October 2002.

B) Other global measures taken:

  • In line with the commitment to refugee women by the High Commissioner to develop integrated country-level strategies to address sexual and gender-based violence, a review of the achievements and constraints worldwide has been initiated.
  • All UNHCR regional bureau directors have sent specific instructions to field offices under their supervision to establish or reinforce measures to prevent the sexual exploitation of refugees.
  • All regional bureaux have designated focal points that are actively monitoring the actions reported by the field offices.
  • A checklist for UNHCR staff on designing protection strategies and measuring progress was issued to field offices in July 2002. This checklist emphasizes prevention of age-based, sexual and gender-based violence as one of the most important measures to be taken by the authorities in ensuring the well being of refugees in emergencies and camps. In particular, the refugee status determination and resettlement procedures, the provision of information about available assistance and entitlements, and the handling of individual case files need to be carefully monitored.
  • Two bureaux have undertaken internal investigations into "high risk" environments where there would have been potential for exploitation. No incidents were substantiated.
  • Offices have included provisions for activities contributing to the prevention of sexual exploitation in their 2003 Country Operation Plans. They have prioritised the retention of protection staff even while undergoing downsizing exercises.
  • To the extent possible, female staff have been designated as focal points for receiving asylum seekers.
  • Counselling services to refugees and asylum seekers have been increased. In some offices, opportunities for refugees to have access to telephone counselling have been provided.
  • Many offices have set up complaint mechanisms and have improved the access by refugees to international staff members.
  • Some field offices have established committees - consisting of gender, children, protection and NGO staff to handle individual incidents involving asylum seekers and refugees, particularly in domestic or sexual violence cases.
  • UNHCR's monitoring mechanisms were reviewed and, in general, more frequent camp visits have been conducted.
  • Information flow has improved. Notices have been posted in refugee areas to provide clear information to refugees about their rights and responsibilities and what they reasonably can expect in terms of protection and assistance.
  • Offices are continuing to prioritise the identification, registration and reunification of separated children or to provide fostering arrangements.
  • UNHCR is increasing support to national women's NGOs which are providing social, economic and community support to refugee returnee women, particularly those identified as being most in need.
  • Many field offices have already organised appropriate and often customised training sessions for their staff and/or their implementing partners. Training sessions have been held with guards, receptionists, and local police working at UNHCR's offices who come into contact with asylum-seekers, instructing them on appropriate behaviour and UNHCR policies.
  • The Senior Regional Advisor for Refugee Children, based in Damascus, undertook a mission in March/April 2002 with a female consultant to assess the situation of the Somali and Ethiopian refugees in Yemen and to identify any issues relating to possible abuse or exploitation of refugee women and children. Following the mission, immediate remedial steps were taken by UNHCR in Yemen.
  • A senior staff member in UNHCR headquarters, reporting directly to the Assistant High Commissioner, has been appointed to co-ordinate consistent and resource effective follow-up of all evaluation recommendations, including those relating to the evaluations on: UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women and Guidelines on their Protection; Meeting the Rights and Protection Needs of Refugee Children; and UNHCR's Community Services Function.


1 At the beginning of 2002 - the Year of Refugee Women - the High Commissioner made five commitments: ensure greater participation of women in management committees, register women individually, initiate strategies to respond to sexual and gender-based violence, ensure greater participation of women in the management and distribution of food, and provide sanitary materials to women and girls.