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UNHCR focuses on refugee women and AIDS on Int'l Women's Day


UNHCR focuses on refugee women and AIDS on Int'l Women's Day

Based on this year's theme of "Gender and HIV/AIDS", UNHCR marked International Women's Day by focusing on education and awareness programmes for refugee women, who are especially vulnerable to infection.
8 March 2004
Refugee women, like these Sierra Leoneans in Guinea, may be pillars of strength in their communities, but they are also vulnerable to diseases.

GENEVA, March 8 (UNHCR) - Refugee women have the power to heal their war-torn communities, yet are themselves vulnerable to diseases like HIV/AIDS, said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers on International Women's Day today.

The High Commissioner raised the issue in his opening remarks at the UNHCR-sponsored Dialogue on Voluntary Repatriation and Sustainable Reintegration in Africa, held in Geneva on Monday.

"Today provides a perfect opportunity for us to reflect on the important role that women have to play in voluntary repatriation and reintegration programmes, and in peace-building and development programmes more generally," said Lubbers. "The success of all of these depends on women's full participation. I have seen first-hand the efforts of women to heal their communities, to ensure that a peace agreement is more than a cease-fire, and to make peace real. "

Noting that the theme of this year's International Women's Day is "Gender and HIV/AIDS", the High Commissioner added, "I do not need to remind you of the seriousness of this pandemic for the women, men and children in Africa. We must do more to address this, because Africa's hope and future depends upon it."

At present, nearly one-third of all adults with HIV/AIDS are under the age of 25 and two-thirds of them are women. In addition to the biological, social and cultural factors that make women more susceptible to the disease, refugee women, who make up half of the world's refugee population, are especially vulnerable to the risk of infection because of the conflict situations they are caught in.

In a message to UNHCR staff, the High Commissioner stressed the need for gender-based responses to control the spread of HIV/AIDS. He noted that the agency has put in place mechanisms and structures among refugee communities - especially in camps - to offer refugee women and girls better access to HIV/AIDS prevention and care programmes. Refugee men and boys are also encouraged to participate in reproductive health programmes.

"Ground-breaking community initiatives in the care of HIV/AIDS patients, education, prevention of gender-based violence, improvements of women's legal rights and economic and social empowerment, all constitute powerful ingredients to help protect refugee women and girls from the scourge of HIV/AIDS," said Lubbers. "The inclusion of refugee women and youth in HIV/AIDS Camp Committees has been an effective way to ensure women's voices are heard on these essential issues."

He also stressed the importance of ongoing initiatives like the recently-launched Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, pioneered by UNAIDS to highlight and address some of the factors that make women vulnerable to the disease.

At its Geneva headquarters, UNHCR marked International Women's Day by supporting the efforts of partner agencies like UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

In the field, UNHCR in Ethiopia conducted a two-day workshop on women and HIV/AIDS in Sherkole camp, home to 18,400 Sudanese refugees. There were also cultural performances, sports events and speeches by the Refugee Women Association and UNHCR's governmental partner, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.

In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, 400 high school students and urban refugee students spent the day with the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO) and UN agencies. They watched "Hidden Tears", a documentary on the lives of women living with AIDS in Ethiopia, and discussed it with panelists from HAPCO, non-governmental organisations and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The event encouraged youth to be proactive and devise strategies to fight the disease, and called on all stakeholders, particularly men, to work together to control the spread of HIV/AIDS and its disproportionate impact on women and girls.

On a lighter note, urban and camp-based refugees will get to enjoy magic shows that reflect women's issues later this week, performed by the Magicians Without Borders team of Dr. Thomas Verner and Janet Fredericks.

In Argentina, UNHCR staff organised a meeting between 45 refugee women, high-level government officials, as well as representatives from UNFPA, non-governmental organisations, academia and the media. The refugee women shared their experiences in Argentina, while authorities from the National Women's Council and the Secretariat of Social Development of Buenos Aires, where most refugees live, agreed to include more refugee women in their programmes.

A Lao refugee in Argentina sharing her experiences at the Buenos Aires meeting.

Celebrating International Women's Day in Herat, Afghanistan.

The refugee women also received a survey that will try to better define their socio-economic needs in order to help them find jobs.

For the month of March, a popular restaurant in Buenos Aires has also agreed to donate part of its proceeds from a series of dance and story-telling evenings to the financing of micro-projects for refugee women.

In Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency helped organise an International Women's Day ceremony with the Women's Council in Herat and various UN agencies. Refugee women returning from Iran through Gazergah Transit Centre in Herat were encouraged to participate in their country's future by obtaining a voting card that will allow them to take part in the upcoming Afghan elections.