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The Call to Better Protect Refugee Women: Challenges and Required Action - Address by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR (24 January 2002, Oslo)

Speeches and statements

The Call to Better Protect Refugee Women: Challenges and Required Action - Address by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR (24 January 2002, Oslo)

24 January 2002

"Improving the Security of Refugee and Displaced Women"

"We've had enough talk. It's time for action". This is according to Jima Nesredin, the youngest refugee participant in the week-long dialogue, which was held with refugee women from around the world in June 2001 in Geneva. The discussions were the culmination of a process involving over 500 refugee women and more than 20 local and regional consultations. It flowed on from the commitment given in the context of the Global Consultations process to make a proper place for the voices of refugees in this important dialogue on International Protection. Along with other senior managers of UNHCR, I participated in this dialogue, and it is not least in the spirit of the many calls made by the refugee women themselves that I welcome this seminar on improving the security of refugee and displaced women.

My thanks go out to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Peace Research Institute and the Norwegian Refugee Council for providing this opportunity to see how far we can move beyond words and into action.

Issues related to the protection of refugee women have not suffered from lack of reflection. Rather, they have suffered from a lack of targeted and concrete action. Protection difficulties, for women not least, will most likely re-occur. Their consequences can though be anticipated and mitigated and their re-occurrence minimized. The first step is to listen to the refugee women themselves, to analyse with them the problems, and to identify with them a set of general recommendations and commitments. The next step will be to turn the recommendations into concrete steps for action. This conference could make, here, quite a contribution, as long as there is clear focus on identification of best practices and the generation of concrete recommendations.

In follow-up to the June meeting, the High Commissioner for Refugees has announced five concrete commitments to refugee and displaced women designed to improve their legal and physical protection. These commitments are that:

  • Through training and other activities, UNHCR offices will work to ensure the active participation of women in all management and leadership committees of refugees in urban, rural and camp settings, including in return areas, with a view to achieving equality of participation between men and women leaders;
  • All refugees men or women will be individually registered and will receive individual documentation, so as to improve security, freedom of movement and access to essential services;
  • UNHCR will develop integrated country-level strategies to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence;
  • Refugee women will be enabled to participate directly as well as indirectly in the management and distribution of food and non-food items; and
  • The provision of sanitary materials to women and girls will become standard practice in all UNHCR assistance programmes.

These commitments and indeed the topics for this seminar which are closely related, have a particular importance in the protection context, even while, of course, their implications for assistance activities are also quite direct. Protection is not a monochrome concept: it is not a theoretical or only legal construct, even though its practice is framed by an important set of internationally agreed legal principles and guidelines; equally it goes beyond physical security. Rather, the protection function is multi-faceted, dynamic and action based; it has overarching goals but it is performed through a wide range of specific activities ranging from interventions for individuals, through programme implementation for populations to working with authorities and other partners in promotion, training and capacity building activities. The commitments made by the High Commissioner to the refugee women, intended over all, to secure their rights, security and integrity of the person and protect their dignity, are therefore an integral part of multi-faceted protection strategies on the ground.

Let me now turn to these commitments, one by one.

In one of the regional consultations, a Sierra Leonean returnee woman declared, "We should not ask UNHCR to give us fish. We should rather ask them to show us how to catch fish, so that we can be self-reliant". These are important words. Refugees, especially refugee women, still tend to be approached as "recipients" of assistance more than as agents of change. Where there are efforts to include broad refugee participation in decision-making, women may well be unable to do so for reasons such as family and childcare responsibilities, perceived inferior status within the society, or simply due to a lack of experience and leadership skills.

It has become very clear that the absence of women from decision-making can have prejudicial consequences for them, their dependants and their community. The needs and concerns of women refugees, which can have important protection ramifications, are not always relayed accurately, if at all, through men in leadership positions in camp settings. In one recent emergency it became starkly clear that had the significance of a childhood illness been appreciated and promptly reported, an epidemic spread could have been pre-empted.

The dialogue with refugee women was a step towards greater encouragement of refugee women in decision-making processes. More concretely, there are measures UNHCR and States must more resolutely implement to promote the goal of 50% representation of women.

  • The gathering and analysis of baseline data on refugee management and representation committees is the starting point.
  • In both camps and urban settings, direct discourse with refugees is necessary to gather support for broader female representation in management, and for appropriate strategies for increasing female representation. Strategies can include quotas for female representatives, incentives to include women, and childcare arrangements to facilitate participation. Training for potential leaders on negotiation, mediation and election campaigning needs to be more widespread.

In Kosovo during the run up to elections, women candidates received training in campaigning to serve this purpose. This flowed on from a recognition, even at the level of the Security Council, that sustainable peace and justice requires the active participation of women.

Turning to the High Commissioner's second commitment, it recognises the repeated call for individual registration and documentation for refugee women heard throughout the June consultations. Participants offered many illustrations of how adequate registration, coupled with the issuance of documentation proved basic to their legal and physical protection both in camps and on return.

Individual registration, for example, is necessary to enable UNHCR and its partners to plan and implement refugee programmes, to manage camps effectively and to target more precisely protection interventions at the field level.

Accessing assistance and services, and enjoying basic civil rights, including freedom of movement and family reunification is often dependant on proof of recorded identity. Refugee women from Sierra Leone in Guinean Camps have been resolute in their request for marriage certificates from the Guinean authorities inter alia as a means to sustainable property claims on return.

Lack of adequate registration and personal documentation of refugee women has invariably led to restricting their freedom of movement in their daily lives. Guinea is one example where refugee women expressed relief and appreciation that all adult refugees have been issued personal identification, allowing them to move freely in the country and ensuring improved economic and physical security. In cases where individual documentation is not issued, women are sometimes arrested and detained by police for little else than going about their daily activities. Moreover, women may be forced to remain in abusive relationships for fear of losing their access to assistance, in situation where only male heads of households are registered and issued the ration card. Refugee women in Thailand reported that without proper documentation to produce to the police, they have no choice but to keep quiet when they have been assaulted outside the camp.

"Practical aspects of physical and legal protection with regard to registration" were discussed at the March 2001 meeting of the Global Consultations. The resulting Executive Committee Conclusion was a good start in the direction of promoting State responsibility for registration. The Executive Committee called, however, for the further development and implementation of detailed registration guidelines. UNHCR is currently examining how best to follow up on this with a view to agreeing with States on basic standards and appropriate measures for individuals or groups with special needs. Suggestions could usefully be elaborated upon in the session of this seminar devoted to registration and documentation.

The High Commissioner's third commitment was to more effectively address sexual and gender-based violence. The testimonies of the refugee women at the June Dialogue certainly reminded us of the wide gap between policy guidelines and their implementation. Sexual and gender-based violence is a recurring phenomenon throughout the refugee life cycle, not always detected, inadequately deterred and rarely fully addressed.

Updating guidelines are useful, ours included. Hence the interagency conference we hosted in March 2001 as the prelude for redoing our SGBV guidelines. Guidelines on the refugee status determination of gender-related persecution claims are also being updated, having benefited from an expert roundtable discussion on the subject matter held in the context of the Global Consultations in September 2001 in San Remo. I will return to this issue in a minute.

However, more needs to be done on the ground reinforced through training of staff and Government counterparts, and dissemination of best practices, which have proved themselves effective. Prevention and response inevitably involve multiple sectors, bringing together psychosocial and health care, security, and protection personnel. UNHCR is fast developing this multi-sectoral approach to the prevention and handling of sexual and gender-based violence. For example in Tanzania a sexual and gender violence multi-sectorial programme has been developed together with the refugee communities and its implementation is being monitored throughout, with appropriate lessons-learned documented along the way. The programme is structured to provide culturally appropriate health examination and treatment; to ensure prosecution of all offenders, to develop overall strategies to address high-risk circumstances and to effect changes in attitudes and behaviour of all concerned. Meeting these objectives is requiring a rethinking of our approaches in many areas tailored to the different programmes.

We are now actively promoting, for example

  • Refugee men accompanying women when they collect water and firewood
  • Female security officers trained and hired to undertake night patrols as in Guinea and Tanzania.
  • Community-based reporting structures similar to the Community Rape Crisis Committees operating in Kenya.
  • Support to refugee men's associations that work with refugee men to change attitudes and combat violence against women, such as the Men's Association for Gender Equality in Guinea. Men in this association have a central message that violence against women is destructive to the whole community - and together they teach by positive example and through encouraging social sanctions against offenders.

As regards responsibility and accountability for management of the protection function in the field, the Department of International Protection is organizing a series of protection and resettlement management workshops. They bring Representatives together with their protection staff, and have a component on improving protection of refugee women through more resolute implementation of office guidelines on sexual and gender-based violence. The first workshop was held in Abidjan, for the West African region. Others are planned shortly for the East and for the Southern African countries and for the Indian sub continent region.

Of course, ensuring protection against violence is in the first instance a responsibility of the host states. They must ensure that law enforcement and criminal justice systems are available to, and do, protect refugees. Refugees should have access to courts and benefit from the protection of national police forces. Police forces require special training on preventing and responding to SGBV, with UNHCR cooperating with state in this regard. Where there are no regular courts, because, for example, of the remoteness of the camps, the mobile courts arrangements set up by the Government of Kenya, with UNHCR's assistance, is an instructive practice to replicate.

On the High Commissioner's fourth commitment you might be interested to learn that in 2001, the UNHCR/WFP Memorandum of Understanding was updated, making particular arrangements for women's participation in food management and distribution. Together with WFP, UNHCR has committed itself to ensuring that, to the extent possible, 80% of relief food is directly distributed to and controlled by females in the household. This has been shown to reduce the vulnerability to sexual exploitation, of both women and of girls. It helps to prevent food being unequally distributed between members of the community, with women and their dependants not always getting their share. Men have predominantly been responsible for diverting food to military or selling or exchanging it for items unrelated to the family's welfare, which is also thereby better controlled.

Arrangements increasingly in place variously

  • Require employment of refugee women as managers and distributors of food and non-food items
  • Provide child-care to facilitate women's participation
  • Ensure that all refugees know their food entitlements
  • Include refugee dispute mechanisms to resolve disputes over distribution
  • Work with family-based, rather than community leaders-based distribution systems (Guinea)
  • Have separate distribution points according to sex and age to avoid congestion and the exclusion of women (Namibia).
  • Stress the appropriateness of food that does not require onerous preparation; in some instances, where women are required to grind provisions, they are obliged to trade food for grinding services, resulting in a reduced food basket, and on occasion, the trading of sexual favours for additional food.

Before I end I would like to put on the table for this meeting to reflect on, a relatively new dilemma which our protection officers in the field, particularly in Asia and in Eastern Europe, are increasingly having to address. It is, if you will, a by-product of the host of problems which arise at the interface between asylum and migration. Women are increasingly the victims of sex trafficking, with significant gains to be had alike for the traffickers as for those who assist them, or turn a blind eye to them. In countries where mafia have a strong hold, where state policing systems are weak and where corruption is anyway endemic, the problem is quite widespread. Women are vulnerable not only to be trafficked once, but again if they manage to return home. They are also seriously endangered, as potential witnesses against organised crime. They are abused, mistreated and enslaved, often without any prior knowledge. This is surely persecution of quite serious proportions, leading a number of advocates to plead for protection to some at least through the asylum system.

The jurisprudence relating to the trafficking of women has had to confront, however, some strong prejudices, born of the fact that trafficking issues have traditionally been analysed within the migration framework, with trafficked women and girls unable to overcome the bias towards seeing refugees as having to have been victims essentially of "political persecution". Certainly the asylum system cannot offer a panacea for all society ills. Nevertheless, ills having their root in a combination of severely depressed economies, ineffective border controls, disinterested or corrupt police and government officials and no legal safety nets, leading to trade in women and children becoming lucrative, highly organised and heavily participatory. Then, the asylum system has to be able - is obliged - to accommodate individual situations they may generate. There are situations where there is no inclination or capacity in countries of origin - due to corruption and complicity at the highest levels or throughout the law enforcement agencies, coupled with anyway inadequate legal systems (absence of laws, etc), often accompanied as well by a vicious social stigmatisation of victims - to protect trafficked victims against recurrence of their plight or silencing of their testimony. In recognition of this fact, jurisprudence in a number of countries is starting to emerge in favour of recognizing, in the individual case, trafficked victims as refugees. This trend should be positively recognised from the UNHCR perspective.

Sessions over the next two days will feed directly into the next meeting of the Global Consultations in May, at which members of the Executive Committee will be asked to examine ways to improve the protection of refugee women. This meeting offers therefore an excellent opportunity for concrete follow-up on your recommendations. I look forward to receiving them.