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Refugee women: the achievements and the challenges

Administrative and Financial Matters (SCAF), 15 September 1995


1. In its 1994 Conclusion on the Recommendations of the Working Group: Refugee Women, the forty-fifth session of the Executive Committee requested the High Commissioner to provide a report on the implementation of the Working Group's recommendations relating to refugee women, and UNHCR activities for the World Conference on Women (A/AC.96/839, para.22 (g)).

2. This document is divided into three parts: Implementation of the Working Group's Recommendations, UNHCR's Involvement in the Global Conference on Women and Future Directions. It is complemented by the publication UNHCR and Refugee Women, Working Together to Rebuild the Future which will be made available at the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee. It provides concrete examples of UNHCR's implementation of the Policy on Refugee Women in various regions.

3. After five full years of development and implementation of a policy on refugee women, and with a new framework for action for 1996 to 2000 outlined in the Beijing Global Platform of Action, it is time to take stock of UNHCR's progress and to plan strategies which will ensure even greater benefit to refugee women from UNHCR programmes, with particular emphasis on field implementation.


A. Background

4. An informal Working Group on Refugee Women and Refugee Children was convened in April 1994 to address the Executive Committee's perception that there continued to be a significant gap between UNHCR policies on refugee women and refugee children and actual practice at the field level. The report (EC/SCP/85) was submitted to the Sub-Committee on the Whole of International Protection in May 1994 and subsequently to the September 1994 meeting of Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters (EC/1994/SC.2/CRP.23/Rev.1). The Sub-Committee endorsed a series of recommendations aimed at removing the obstacles to implementation and recommended that they be carried out under General Programme funding.

5. As they applied to refugee women, the various recommendations represented an integrated and interdependent programme of action. For example, well-targeted and expanded People-Oriented Planning (POP) training relies, to a significant extent, on specialized staff to identify opportunities and barriers in field implementation, as well as additional funding. Equally, the fielding of regional advisor posts on refugee women who reinforce the training programmes requires a strong Headquarters coordination in terms of identification of suitable candidates, initial work planning, reporting and priority setting.

6. Some of the recommendations have been implemented and others are in progress. However, with the strong commitments for implementation emanating from the Global Platform of Action and the specific recommendations focused on refugee issues there will be a reinforced emphasis on addressing outstanding issues in the coming year.

B. Implementation

7. The Working Group's recommendations focused on several major areas: representation of female staff, training and attitude, staff accountability, emergency approach, fielding of specialist staff, programming integration, physical protection and human rights training, policy compliance of implementing partners and allocation of sufficient resources for implementation.

8. With regard to female staff, it should be noted that the High Commissioner has instituted a policy of recruiting only women for the next year except in specific cases for which her approval would be required. An assessment of progress made in ensuring female representation will be made at the end of that period.

9. The attitude of individual staff members has been identified universally by both multilateral and bilateral organizations as the major obstacle to implementation of policies and guidelines on behalf of women. As the Beijing Conference underscores, attitudes sustained by what is still a predominantly male establishment must be changed in order to ensure further progress in mainstreaming issues related to refugee women. The Working Group emphasized this issue in UNHCR and called for greater accountability of staff members for implementation of the Policy. However, it is a gradual and cumulative process to change an organizational culture into one which will readily support new initiatives for women as well as provide continued efforts for mainstreaming women's specific concerns into regular programming. POP training is one tool being used in UNHCR to address attitudinal change. It introduces a practical framework for planning refugee interventions while underlining that an approach which addresses gender and age-specific needs and resources is essential to the efficiency and effectiveness of programmes generally. With this in mind, the Working Group has called for mandatory POP training for all staff. However, due to severe financial restrictions and limitations on the increase in Headquarters staff, POP training remained at last year's level. However, the inclusion of some parts of POP in emergency management training and protection and programming training, as well as POP training held at local initiative has increased actual coverage.

10. In terms of integration of concerns for women in UNHCR's emergency activities, it is now standard practice to include community services officers in emergency teams who together with other team members are responsible for identifying particular constraints to protection and assistance of women. Indeed, two staff who have had specific experience in working with refugee women are now members of the Community Services emergency stand-by team.

11. The Emergency Management Training Programme (EMTP) contains substantive reference to the POP approach; and new registration procedures highlight the importance of involving refugee women, as well as the collection of disaggregated statistics which will give more precise planning information to meet specific needs. A further recommendation that food distribution be placed in the hands of refugee women has been developed into an action-oriented research project under the management of the Programme and Technical Support Section (PTSS) which will assess the conditions necessary to ensure the success of such distribution and its impact on family level food security.

12. The Working Group had supported the fielding of four regional specialists on refugee women to reinforce and support field implementation of the policies and guidelines and specifically ensure integration into field level programming. Recruitment will begin shortly for these posts to be located in Costa Rica, Egypt, Ethiopia and Turkey.

13. Recommendations related to greater integration into programming have, for the most part, been implemented at the Headquarters procedural level but still need to be reinforced at field level. This will be supported by ongoing cooperation with Field Offices on training and specifically focused on follow-up. The regional specialists will have a key role in assisting field staff by providing practical advice on how to mainstream refugee women's issues into planning.

14. The Working Group's recommendations regarding physical protection and human rights training have received particular emphasis in the past year. The Guidelines on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence against Refugees have received international praise and indeed were cited as a model in the Beijing Global Platform of Action. The annual protection reporting exercise was modified to ensure that the specific concerns of women were addressed. A training manual has been produced on Refugee Protection and Human Rights which enables staff to use these instruments as an additional tool in the protection of refugee women. A new training module for Interviewing Applicants for Refugee Status includes a specific chapter and training video on refugee women. A manual on rights awareness training is also under development.

15. The Working Group recognized that compliance with the Policy on Refugee Women by UNHCR's operational partners was a major factor in successful implementation. This compliance was encouraged through the UNHCR-NGO Partnership in Action (PARinAC) process, and POP training of local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and through the efforts of government ministries during the past year. However, this area requires increased emphasis on organizational attitudinal change and accountability.

16. Resource allocation for ongoing activities and particularly for new initiatives and pilot projects, which will enable UNHCR to test and then integrate new approaches to increase participation of refugee women, remain a difficulty in times of scarce resources. Again, as the Global Conference on Women has stressed, priorities must be set in the allocation of resources if we are to realize any further progress.


A. Internal organization

17. UNHCR's participation in the Global Conference on Women had several goals: to ensure a voice for refugee women in the regional preparatory meetings, to ensure that issues of concern to refugee women remain on the international agenda, to further encourage partnership with NGOs and other United Nations agencies on issues of mutual concern, and to increase support and understanding of refugee womens' issues within UNHCR, and among operational partners.

18. In preparing for the Conference, UNHCR set up a network of field focal points at regional and country levels, as well as Headquarters focal points to facilitate the flow of information and to involve all sectors of the Office in pre-Conference activities. Attempts were made to make the process as inclusive and broad-based as possible including extensive consultations with refugee women and NGOs.

19. The Conference preparation was envisaged as part of ongoing activities for refugee women and not an end in itself. Virtually no additional resources were allocated for conference preparation and participation; financial reallocations covered travel costs and the additional workload was assumed by existing staff, but with an obvious impact on the progress of other priority activities related to refugee women.

B. Regional preparatory conferences

20. UNHCR ensured representation at all five of the regional preparatory conferences and prepared position papers based on UNHCR field input. These were used as a basis for lobbying delegates (both official and non-governmental) on issues of regional concern to the Office. In addition to providing an opportunity for UNHCR to present its issues to a wide audience not usually exposed to refugee-specific issues, the regional conferences were valuable in introducing a cross section of UNHCR staff to women's issues.

21. A number of UNHCR Field Offices made comprehensive contributions to national reports and activities, ensuring the inclusion of refugee women's issues amongst those raised at the country level. Each regional Platform of Action reflects varying degrees of interest in refugee issues and makes recommendations for corrective action.

22. The Global Platform of Action, which was finalized in Beijing in September 1995, integrates the concerns of refugee women into nearly every strategic objective, which reflects the strong and coordinated lobbying throughout the process. Extensive, specific reference to refugee women occurs under the sections addressing violence against women and the impact of armed conflict. Particular mention was made of the importance of the UNHCR Guidelines on Protection of Refugee Women and the Guidelines on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence, reinforcing the call for international follow-up of the principles embodied in these documents.


23. A major emphasis of the Conference was the commitment to implementation and the allocation of appropriate resources. As part of the Regional Operations Review, UNHCR will encourage the integration of key aspects of the Platform of Action into country programming with emphasis on translating the principles into concrete action.

24. Among the elements of UNHCR future implementation, the following should be emphasized, in addition to the follow-up of any recommendations of the Working Group not yet fully implemented:

  • commitment and accountability at the highest level for improving the situation of refugee women
  • providing cooking fuel, both as a time saving and protection measure for refugee women
  • ensuring that knowledge of the policies and guidelines on refugee women, and POP training are included in the Career Management System (CMS) and that accountability for implementation is addressed in the new Performance Evaluation Reports
  • integrating a requirement to implement UNHCR policies and guidelines on refugee women in project agreements with operational partners
  • reviewing compliance with UNHCR programming and budgeting tools and reporting procedures, guidelines and manuals which have already integrated the policy on refugee women to ensure consistency of implementation
  • developing an index for measuring performance of specific refugee programmes from the point of view of improving the situation of refugee, displaced and returnee women
  • improving gender disaggregated statistics in the context of ongoing efforts to improve statistics and registration
  • initiation of the rights awareness programme for refugee women
  • application to other programmes of lessons learnt from the Women Victims of Violence project in Kenya
  • continued advocacy of the concept of gender-based persecution and identification of local women's organizations as potential implementing partners for projects benefiting refugee women
  • increased replication of POP training through international NGOs, who, in turn, undertake this training among local NGOs as part of capacity-building efforts underlined in the PARinAC Oslo Declaration
  • food assessment missions to address specifically the situation of refugee women
  • integration of refugee women's concerns routinely in all new major initiatives, with the manager of such initiatives held responsible for initiating the process
  • regular reports by the regional specialists on refugee women to be submitted to the Senior Management Committee for review and follow-up.

25. As the Beijing conference has highlighted, however, attitudinal change, accountability and commitment of resources are the keys to successful implementation. Just as the situation of refugee women is not solely determined by UNHCR, so too the status quo cannot be improved only through UNHCR's efforts. With the support of its operational partners, and Executive Committee members, UNHCR believes that the policies and guidelines developed over the past five years will form the foundations for dynamic and enhanced implementation of the ideals and principles supported by the international community at the Fourth Global Conference on Women.




How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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