Navigating Refugee Life

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 figures2: 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, Médecins 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 non-governmental 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. The other commitments deal with refugee women and girls deprived of their rights due to lack of autonomous and active roles in registration, food distribution, and decision-making processes in the management of refugee camps.

Another relevant UNHCR policy document is its "2000 Complementary Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status". This document, though not a binding legal tool in determining refugee status, promotes gender as a basis for persecution in considering some claims for refugee status. This is an important step in the right direction towards more gender-sensitive protection measures for refugee women, but it still falls short of addressing the failure of international instruments -- such as the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention -- in identifying and recognizing gender-based persecution as a valid ground for claiming refugee status. Some good national efforts in this aspect are those of the Canadian, American and Australian Governments, which establish legal mechanisms to recognize gender-based persecution as a basis for granting refugee status.5

In addition, non-governmental organizations and an increasing number of refugee-led organizations in various countries play a direct and important role in assisting refugee women and girls who are victims of violence by providing them with day-to-day services needed for their rehabilitation, support and empowerment.6

It is commendable that actors such as UN organizations and some States are concerned and are moving towards a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of violence against refugee women. For instance, some of the aforementioned UNHCR policy documents highlight the multiplicity yet the connectedness of the different forms of violence against refugee women and girls. Thus, large-scale rape and sexual assault on the one hand, and abject poverty and deplorable housing conditions on the other, may be distinct forms of violence -- the former being sexual and the latter, structural. But these two kinds of violence are also interconnected in that they are often gender-based and result from refugee women being situated in unequal and discriminatory socio-political structures and relations. We need to identify the links between these diverse forms of violence and shed light on the significance of these connections. But this task has yet to be done adequately.

In public discourses and the work of concerned actors, structural violence against refugee women and girls is still not dealt with, nor even perceived as the shocking and violating sexual violence that it is. This is perhaps due to the lack of widespread awareness of the connection between different forms of violence against refugee women and girls. And maybe this partly explains the lack thus far of the will and satisfactory legal, political, and economic measures on the part of many host countries to address the protection needs of refugees in situations of protracted displacement. Refugee women in such conditions often bear the brunt of this failure, which translates into their daily experiences of structural violence. Such women have to confront economic hardship with little or no means of livelihood; they lack adequate health and educational services; they live in overcrowded and unhealthy housing where they are subjected to or are at risk of sexual violence; they have no or very limited choices and resources to make safe and healthy decisions about their sexual and reproduction activities; and, most of all, they live in a state of limbo and instability.

I am not negating that refugee men and boys in protracted displacement also suffer from vulnerabilities and violations, which can be similarly called structural violence. But there are distinct ways in which structural violence against refugees is gendered and marginalizing. For instance, refugee women in such conditions continue to be caregivers for family members and children, while engaging in income-generating activities, such as domestic work or prostitution, in which they are exploited and subjected to physical and sexual violence. Thus the gendered and gendering aspects of structural violence against refugee women and girls, particularly in protracted displacement, need to be underscored and taken into consideration in policy-making and in advocacy work.

Finally, the issue of labeling is intrinsic to the work that UNHCR and its implementing partners carry out in order to provide protection and services to refugees. Yet this process sometimes undermines the purpose of the work, that is, the challenges of insufficient funds and services often lead UNHCR personnel and their implementing partners to create and adopt narrow and rigid constructions of the "deserving refugee woman" who is to receive their humanitarian services. This can be particularly detrimental to women who experience violence in diffuse and "hard to categorize" ways. Let us say there is a refugee woman in her thirties living in protracted displacement in an urban setting in the South. She has been abandoned by her husband; she is taking care of their two children; she has developed health problems due to many years of domestic work; and she has to fend off sexual advances from different men in her neighbourhood on a daily basis. How are her experiences and protection needs related to and comparable to a fifteen-year-old refugee girl who has been raped by a man sharing housing with her, or a twenty-one year-old refugee woman who has been raped during the flight from her home country and is suffering from the physical and psychological effects of this sexual violence? And how do we translate these different experiences of violence into meaningful language and adequate policy measures that meet the needs of these women and protect their human rights?7 Because the realities of displacement and violence for many refugee women and girls are heterogeneous, complex and dynamic, we are in need of rich and multidimensional understanding of such experiences, as well as policies that are grounded in such understanding. This is a necessary, but by no means easy task.


1. UNIFEM. Violence against Women -- Facts and Figures, 2007. 

2. IRIN/OCHA. Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed. November 2005.

3. UNIFEM. Ibid.

4. This policy document was updated and replaced by the 2008 UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls.

5. Canada issued its Guidelines on Women Refugees Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution in 1993. USA followed suit in 1995 and Australia in 1996.

6. For a list of such organizations, see UNHCR. Annual Consultations with Non-Governmental Organizations: Partner in Brief, Geneva, Switzerland, 2009.

7. These are the actual experiences of refugee women who were ¬informants in some of the studies I conducted on Somali refugee populations in Egypt.