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Progress report on refugee women

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress report on refugee women

25 May 1998



1. At the last Standing Committee meeting of September/October 1997, several issues pertaining to the implementation of the policy on refugee women and institutional arrangements to facilitate the mainstreaming and integration of refugee women and gender were raised by members of the Standing Committee. This information note serves as a progress report. The current policy framework formulated in 1989 and adopted in 1990, focuses on refugee women as a special target group of beneficiaries who have special needs and concerns. This special attention to refugee women is based on the premise that refugee situations, particularly those resulting from armed conflict, have a differential impact on women and men. At the same time, the policy seeks to mainstream refugee women in all programme and project activities, including through the integration of refugee women at all levels of participation, in planning, implementation of programmes and monitoring.

2. The Beijing Platform for Action1 and current thinking encourages attention to gender perspectives, to reflect ways in which relations between women and men constrain or facilitate efforts to enhance participation and advancement of women, eradicate harmful traditional and cultural practices and promote the human rights of women. There is a perceptible paradigm shift from focusing on women to focusing on gender. The June 1997 ECOSOC recommendations on mainstreaming a gender perspective crystallizes the present concerns and encourages agencies to adopt measures to integrate gender concerns into the programming processes. Effective programme delivery depends on thoughtful design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and staff training, all of which are areas in which UNHCR has now gained considerable experience.

Revision of the Policy on Refugee Women

3. The UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women was designed before the Beijing Platform for Action and the ECOSOC recommendations of 1997. Although the policy is wide enough to enable the inclusion of the recommendations of the Beijing Platform for Action in various guidelines and interventions, it is time to take another look at the policy with a view to revision. Among the issues that may need to be added to the Policy revision are:

(i) The strategies and recommendations of the Beijing Platform for Action and other global conferences;

(ii) The ECOSOC recommendations on mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes;

(iii) Human rights of refugee women and the rights-based approach to programming for refugee women;

(iv) Incorporation of gender-impact analysis in programme and project planning;

(v) Policy on harmful traditional practices.

Meeting the Practical and Strategic Needs of Refugee Women

4. The gender focus distinguishes between the practical and strategic needs of refugee women. The practical needs refer to the basic physical requirements of food, shelter and primary health care. The strategic needs of refugee women would include the capacity-building necessary to equip them with sustainable skills to enable access to available resources and services and entitlement to those resources and services. Refugee women's rights, including their rights to protection from all forms of violence, abuse, exploitation and access to social justice; women's active involvement in all decision-making processes including resettlement, return and reintegration and peace-building processes are all strategic needs of women. In addition, inheritance and property rights, the right to protection from harmful traditional and cultural practices and discriminatory religious practices that are State condoned are all strategic needs of refugee women.

5. UNHCR is unequivocal in its vigorous advocacy for the provision of the practical needs of refugee women. However, it is the strategic needs that prove to be a challenge. In times of financial constraint it is the strategic needs that could suffer from underfunding, and be susceptible to sudden withdrawal of support.

6. Great strides have been made in the past in introducing projects that promote the strategic needs of refugee women such as encouraging girls' education, education and skills training of refugee women, rights awareness training, advocacy against female genital mutilation and early marriage, entrepreneurial skills development, income-generation activities etc. These activities, however, have tended to suffer in recent times because of the financial crisis facing the Office. It is important that these activities continue to have donor support. Improving opportunities for women is critical for successful voluntary repatriation and reintegration of refugee women. Refugee women form the central force to re-establishing the returnee community. Refugee children and men rely on the refugee women for return to normal life within their own community. Support for the strategic needs of refugee women reinforces their capacity for successful reintegration upon return.

7. UNHCR is wholly committed to systematically integrating gender perspectives into the mainstreaming of its own approach to protection and programme assistance. Gender issues will be integrated into the country programming process and programme delivery. In response to the ECOSOC recommendations, all countries were requested to provide their plans for mainstreaming a gender perspective. The country plans are summarized in a matrix form and attached as Annex 1.


8. The People-Oriented Planning (POP) training programme continues to be used effectively to provide UNHCR staff and implementing partners with a framework for gender analysis in policy development and needs assessment in protection and programme interventions. In 1997, 27 POP workshops were held in 23 different geographic locations. This brought to 3,023, the number of persons (UNHCR and implementing partners) trained in this process, since its inception in 1989. The training is provided through POP workshops and through the integration of POP concepts in other protection and programme management training activities. The strategy for 1998 continues the institutionalization process through an intensive case study writing workshop for senior staff on issues of current concern for refugee women. The POP training on gender analysis is based on case study methodology. Increased emphasis is being placed on the training of senior staff and representatives. Five regional workshops for representatives have been planned for 1998.

9. Achieving desired results through successful implementation presumes that all actors are fully knowledgeable and equipped to integrate and manage gender issues in programming and protection processes. While Annex 1 (a summary of the principal aspects of the current activities and plans) shows the considerable progress in the area, more needs to be done. There are some innovative projects and activities that are designed and carried out in the field in respect of refugee women, but very often these activities are not reflected in the annual and periodic reporting processes.

10. Intensified staff training on gender issues has to be actively promoted. Whilst the POP training provides a useful analytical framework of gender roles and responsibilities for planners, a more forceful thrust has to be adopted to ensure an overall integration of gender in all of the institutional processes.

11. Attempts have been made to integrate gender perspectives in the People Management training course for senior staff. However, constraints in resources have limited progress in that direction. Full realization of the policy will depend on additional resources.

12. UNHCR's experiences of the past have produced some promising operational strategies and approaches. Translated into projects, they have had a positive impact on refugee women. These successes will be documented in the form of best practices. Best practices for refugee women in the areas of camp management, addressing sexual violence, food distribution and management and peace-building are being documented. A list of all the guidelines and checklists designed for better protection and programming for refugee women is attached as Annex II.

Need for harmonization of all actors

13. UNHCR is only one of the contributors to programme formulation and implementation. Government counterparts and implementing NGO partners play an important role in the outcome of policies. All Governments and some NGOs are committed to ensuring the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. Most Governments have established a ministry or unit for women and gender issues. Synergistic links need to be established with such ministries and units to assist refugee women and promote gender concerns. All the Senior Regional Coordinators for Refugee Women have sought to set up such links between the country programmes and the national machinery for women. The Senior Regional Advisors have also participated in convening inter-agency thematic groups on gender so as to coordinate all activities for women and gender. NGOs, in increasing numbers, are realizing the importance of the shift from focusing on women to gender, especially in the case of prevention and responses to violence. All of these efforts can only have maximum impact if Governments have the political will and commitment to extend their efforts to promote the rights and concerns of refugee women in harmony with their national efforts to advance women and gender perspectives.


14. Cultural and traditional barriers in refugee situations do continue to inhibit refugee women's access to security and other essential services. Their inability to articulate powerfully their needs; their reluctance to transcend the barriers and gaps that exist, for fear of transgressing social norms, results in lack of participation and in unequal access to the services and other possibilities that might be available. Women's access to services, relative to potentialities, remains less than satisfactory. Improving women's participation in all activities in refugee situations would result in better access, efficiency and higher attainment of rights of refugee women.

15. Humanitarian aid agencies, including UNHCR staff, have always faced the dilemma of uncertainties about interfering with the traditional and cultural practices of the refugee community. For a refugee who has lost everything, the culture and tradition that she carries with her becomes a precious commodity that represents her identity with her past and her community. However, culture sensitive advocacy about the harmful effects of some traditional practices can have a positive transformative effect on the community as a whole. This process has to involve the men within the community.

16. Indeed, such advocacy work is being carried out by all United Nations agencies and both national and local NGOs in response to article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which requires all States to take all effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices that endanger the health of children. This Convention has been signed and ratified by a majority of States, who are now obliged to implement the provisions. Further, The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) under article 2 states that violence against women includes "physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including ... female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women....". Articles 4 and 5 of the Declaration urge all States and United Nations specialized agencies to take specific action to eliminate such practices. UNHCR has endorsed the joint statement of WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA on female genital mutilation and issued a directive (IOM/83/97 and FOM/90/97) on UNHCR Policy on Harmful Traditional Practices, setting out strategies to eradicate such practices among refugee populations. Much of the work in this area has focused on advocacy for the elimination of female genital mutilation and early marriage of girls. A video, based on the work in the eastern camps of Ethiopia, has been produced in Somali and English on "How to Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation". This video will be used in northwestern Somalia and the Sudan for advocacy purposes.


17. Most country programmes do collect sex and age disaggregated data, but better use of the data could be made for the purposes of delivery of services and assistance. More creative use of the data could be achieved through gender responsive analysis and use of the data for more qualitative programming in areas that impact on refugee women's enjoyment of rights.


18. Accountability is the mechanism through which incentives and sanctions are created to ensure compliance of service providers with organizational policies and guidelines. The lack of definition of responsibilities has inhibited the rapid progress of country programmes in the implementation of policies and guidelines on refugee women. Such responsibilities imposed by UNHCR's Career Management System competencies may serve to improve the realization of the policies and guidelines. Motivation and implementation should be measured through indicators and assessment based on stated organizational goals.

19. Efforts have been made to revise the indicators relating to the core and managerial competencies of the Career Management System (CMS) to include issues of gender mainstreaming, refugee women, children and adolescents. Further revisions are being made to the indicators relating to the functional competencies. Once the revision is completed and operational, the personal appraisal system would require managers and concerned staff to ensure the realization of UNHCR policies and guidelines through inclusion in their objectives and implementation. However, it is recognized that commitment on the part of the managers of the organization is crucial to ensure the success of the accountability mechanism. It is hoped that this system of appraisal will become operational towards the end of 1998.

Refugee Women in conflict-prevention and peace-building

20. Women have not been militarized like men. However, conflicts result in women and children being the main victims and losers. Investing proportionately more in women through supporting their activities for peaceful resolution of conflict and their work toward conflict-prevention and peace-building would pay dividends in the long term. The inter-generational influence of women is striking and noted in several areas. An educated woman ensures that her children are more educated than her. The reduction in the gender gaps within the family are markedly noticeable. Education of women produces significant social change such as lower fertility rates, better household nutrition and reduced infant, child and maternal mortality. Women as the custodians of the cultural and community traditions perpetuate social trends, even negative ones such as civil and political bias and prejudice. Thus, focus on women and promoting their participation in peace-building activities is a wise investment for prevention of violent conflicts. With this factor in mind, UNHCR has supported successful strategies and activities of local women's NGOs in their efforts to promote peace and avert violent conflicts.

21. Many of the strategies and activities were highlighted in an inter-agency workshop on documenting the best practices of women in peace-building which took place in Addis Ababa in December 1997. As a result of a series of advocacy measures by local women's NGOs with inter-agency support, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has set up a high-level African Women's Committee for Peace, which is to meet in May 1998. The Peace Committee is part of the Programme for Conflict Management and Resolution of the OAU.


22. Significant progress can be seen in the organizational awareness that mainstreaming of refugee women and gender concerns are serious issues that are here to stay and are not temporary issues in current vogue. Likewise, serious attempts are being made to ensure that women and gender issues are mainstreamed, as is evidenced by the country plans of action.

23. In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of guidelines, checklists and training materials for the better protection and assistance of refugee women. An assessment of their impact at field level remains to be carried out systematically. An overall evaluation of UNHCR's efforts to implement its various policies, including the Policy on Refugee Women, will be carried out in 1998. In addition, an overall evaluation of the impact of training programmes which will include an assessment of the People-Oriented Training programme is planned for 1998. Steps to incorporate accountability measures in the Career Management System may result in more rapid realization of the polices and guidelines. Decentralization, however, could slow down the process of implementation and monitoring, unless the role of gender focal points is formalized and responsibilities for refugee women and gender mainstreaming are incorporated in job descriptions of UNHCR staff.

24. In the realization of policies and guidelines, a fundamental consideration is the allocation of resources, especially financial resources. The financial crisis facing the Office puts at risk the goal of mainstreaming gender perspectives and the needs of refugee women in all areas of protection and assistance activities. This is but one adverse effect of the current financial crisis. Policies recognized as priorities by the Executive Committee need to be backed up by greater financial support for General Programmes and the various Special Programmes. UNHCR, for its part, will ensure that internal control mechanisms will continue to be improved to make sure that such priorities are being reflected in all country programmes.

1 UNHCR's progress in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action as it directly relates to UNHCR is reflected in the publication Refugee Women and UNHCR Implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (March 1998).