Magazine article UN Chronicle

Navigating Refugee Life

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Navigating Refugee Life

Article excerpt

Those of us concerned with violence against refugee women and girls may agree on two things: the first is that the magnitude of the problem is grave, and the second is that although there have been numerous efforts to address the problem in the past three decades, the effectiveness of the outcomes remains to be debated.

Refugee women and girls are exposed to multiple forms of violence. The displacement resulting from living in places of armed conflicts subjects women and girls to murder, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, trafficking, abject poverty and to a higher risk of violence inflicted by an intimate partner, family relatives or community members. A recent report of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which notes that half a million women were raped in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, demonstrates the severity of the problem. (1) The report also states that 60,000 cases of rape against women had been reported in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Another recent publication, based on a study in 2000, reports similar alarming figures (2): 50,000 to 64,000 internally displaced women were sexually abused during Sierra Leone's armed conflict. Furthermore, the same source reports that just between October 2004 and February 2005, Medecins Sans Frontiers treated 500 women who were victims of rape in Darfur.

At the international level, important measures have been introduced in order to combat violence against women. In 1993, the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Furthermore, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) had included rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and enforced sterilization in the list of crimes against humanity. In fact, of those indicted by the ICC, half had been charged with rape or sexual assault. This was also the case with those charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. (3)

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is the most comprehensive international tool that addresses different violations of women's rights. Although CEDAW does not directly mention violence, the committee in charge of interpreting the convention and supervising State implementation, included in its General recommendation No. 19 (1992) the obligation of State parties to adopt the necessary measures in order to eradicate violence against women in their respective countries.

To strengthen the rights of refugee women and girls and combat violence against them, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) formulated a series of policies. In 1991, it published the "Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women". (4) This document introduced policy measures for programme design for UNHCR personnel and implementing partners in order to fill the protection gaps specific to refugee women. These include unsafe physical layout of refugee camps and procedures for aid distribution which make women susceptible to sexual violence and deprive them of vital resources. Four years later, in 1995, UNHCR published "Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Protection and Response", which was meant to provide a framework for action for UN organizations, governmental and nongovernmental organizations working with refugees. Updated in 2003, the guidelines pertain not only to refugees but also to returnees and internally displaced persons. Moreover, this latest UNHCR document emphasizes a new preventive approach towards the problem of sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2000, a new policy, the Higher Commissioner's Five Commitments to Refugee Women, was issued. One of the five commitments concerns developing country-level strategies to combat sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women and girls. …

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