UNHCR's protection chief sees key role in future for Syrian refugee women

News Stories, 4 December 2013

© UNHCR/S. Baldwin
Syrian refugees attend a class on the basics of nursing in Sidon, Lebanon. The conference in London heard that refugee women have amazing motivation and determination to be a positive part of shaping Syria's future.

LONDON, United Kingdom, December 4 (UNHCR) Syrian refugee women have a key role to play in Syria's future, UNHCR's protection chief Volker Türk told a conference in London on Wednesday.

"Despite the conflict, horrors and human rights abuses they have escaped in Syria, refugee women have an amazing motivation and determination to be a positive part of shaping Syria's future," Director of International Protection Türk told participants at the Thompson Reuters Foundation Trust Women conference during a panel discussion on "Women's rights in the Arab world: Has spring turned into winter?"

Türk, recently returned from meeting Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, said he came away with a profound desire to create opportunities to empower Syrian refugee women to build a stronger future for themselves and play a positive role in the future of their country.

He added that more than 80 per cent of the more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees were women and children a particularly vulnerable population facing serious protection risks such as early marriages, child labour, isolation and lack of livelihoods. UNHCR is leading a massive international response to support refugees and the neighbouring countries, in particular the host communities which have been generously hosting Syrians through more than 33 months of conflict.

"I was absolutely struck [when] meeting a Syrian teacher who had lost her husband, and was supporting her three children by making and selling candles in an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon. Amidst this misery, she had built a small business and was strikingly positive. I saw in her the future of Syria," he said.

© Thomson Reuters Foundation /M.Mis
UNHCR's protection chief Volker Türk with other participants at the London conference.

During a panel discussion featuring women from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, Türk said the empowerment of Syrian refugee women could be advanced in a number of ways, including by encouraging their meaningful participation in the international effort to protect and assist their communities in displacement; supporting the growth and activities of women's empowerment groups across the region as well as education and livelihood programmes. Advocating for the elimination of gender discrimination in nationality laws as well as broader human rights protection was also essential.

Türk also underlined the importance of the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian refugee situation and UNHCR's efforts to mainstream protection programmes.

"UNHCR wants to hold a forum for Syrian refugee women in neighbouring states to meet and share their stories of empowerment in displacement. By sharing their struggles and experiences, their confidence will be strengthened and they will become long-term advocates of change, not only in displacement but also when conditions are right to return to Syria," Türk added, while asking conference participants to help make this a reality.

UNHCR, which is the leading global humanitarian organization for saving the lives and protecting the rights of refugees, seeks lasting solutions for refugees. But solutions can take time, particularly when there is running conflict. In the meantime, UNHCR finds new ways to help refugees outside their country, build towards a better future by promoting empowerment, self-reliance, encouraging education and improving skills.

By Andrej Mahecic in London, United Kingdom, and Jennifer Pagonis in Geneva




UNHCR country pages

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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