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UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Refugee Women


UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Refugee Women

1 December 1998

Women's rights are human rights

The faces of refugees are overwhelmingly those of women and children, as they comprise up to 80 per cent of most refugee populations. Since women's rights are human rights, they have a right to help make decisions that will affect their lives. It is therefore vital that refugee women actively participate in planning and implementing programmes designed for refugees.

Unfortunately, women's participation in activities can be hindered by cultural norms, a lack of skills or low self-esteem. Inequality in the public sector often begins at home, with unequal power relations and unequal division of labour between men and women. UNHCR is beginning to redress this imbalance by providing basic skills training, literacy and management skills to build women's self-confidence and enable them to contribute effectively to community management. In 1999, these kinds of programmes will continue in Uganda, Liberia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and in the Middle East. In Eastern Europe, the newly independent republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Central Asia, traditional family and social structures are crumbling, as men leave home to fight or to seek better economic opportunities. Women, then, must assume the roles of breadwinner, protector and head-of-household, in addition to playing their traditional part as care-giver. UNHCR's 1999 programmes will support these women in the political, economic and social spheres. The agency believes that by fostering their resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, these women will promote peace, economic stability and social change.

The rights-based approach

A programme in skills development for Rwandan female members of parliament who are returning from exile includes drafting gender-equity legislation. In Liberia, UNHCR supports NGOs and civil society in promoting the rights of returnee widows who face discriminatory inheritance laws. In Guatemala, UNHCR lobbies for equal rights for returnee women in areas related to land ownership and women's participation in credit schemes to purchase land. Throughout the Americas, UNHCR offices are working to ensure that the individual woman's right to eligibility procedures is respected. In Kenya, Malawi, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Americas, UNHCR conducts training on women's rights for both refugee men and women.


Gender inequality is perpetuated when women are not given the opportunity to work. UNHCR offers refugee women skills training, rights-awareness training, education, health care and assistance that fosters economic independence, including credits, grants and support for the development of micro-enterprises. In Benin, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, women will participate in income-generation projects which incorporate training in business management and market insertion techniques. In Guinea, refugee women will be offered training in office skills and construction. UNHCR will continue to support group revolving-fund schemes for particularly vulnerable women in Afghanistan. Training programmes in computer skills, financial management and professional development will also be offered to Afghan women. UNHCR will review women's access to skills-training programmes for urban refugees in Argentina and Brazil, and work to ensure that government child-care facilities will be available to refugee women in 1999 so they can participate in these programmes.

Combating violence against women

During war and armed conflict, violations of human rights and gender-based violence increase dramatically. Gender-based violence and persecution are often adopted as tactics of war and terrorism; indeed, recent history has all-too-often seen sexual violence and rape used deliberately and strategically as a weapon of war. Sadly, this kind of abuse can follow a refugee woman throughout her life as a refugee. During flight and in asylum countries, refugee women and girls may also be subject to sexual abuse and harassment. The suffering caused by sexual violence does not end when the violence ends. Women may endure years of severe psychological trauma, rejection by their families and communities, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and/or HIV/AIDS.

In various countries throughout the world, UNHCR has introduced culturally sensitive psycho-social and health care to assist women who have been physically abused. In many communities, refugee men and women want to participate in programmes to prevent and respond to violence against women. As a result of the success of rape crisis-intervention programmes elsewhere, refugee women in the Sudan and Kenya are establishing community security systems. In Uganda, Crisis Intervention Teams are operating in refugee communities. Following a number of attacks that occurred during flight or within camps in Yemen, UNHCR set up a Refugee Women Task Force to provide counselling and support to victims and try to prevent further attacks. In Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Sudan UNHCR provides training on sexual violence for field staff and home visitors. Training on gender issues and sexual and domestic violence is also offered to local authorities and migration officials in Mexico.

Women in the peace process

Just as social and economic development requires the active participation of women, so does peace and reconciliation. In 1997, UNHCR supported an inter-agency workshop on peace-building for African grass-roots movements. A publication documenting best practices in peace-building will be produced shortly. As part of the Workshop's Plan of Action, UNHCR will support Women's Peace Missions to Somalia and Sierra Leone in 1999, and offer training on conflict-resolution and negotiation skills elsewhere in Africa.