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Refugee women

24-05-2002 Statement

ICRC statement to the UNHCR Global Consultations on International Protection, fourth meeting, Geneva, 22-24 May 2002

 Mr Chairman,  


 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomes this occasion to address the situation of refugee women. This is a valuable opportunity to devote time to this specific issue, and the ICRC agrees with UNHCR and other speakers that the specific insight and suggestions gathered today and a more general gender perspective must be mainstreamed into all programmes and activities.  


 In recent years the ICRC too has made vigorous efforts to ensure that the specific needs of women are properly recognized and met throughout its protection and assistance activities.  


 In October 2001 the ICRC published Women facing War, a study assessing the specific impact of armed conflict on women. This study was based on a two-year systematic collection of information from ICRC delegations world-wide on the activities carried out on behalf of women and the obstacles encountered in responding to their needs. The study aims to improve the understanding of the ways in which women are affected by armed conflict by drawing lessons from past and current experiences in order to enhance the quality, relevance and impact of the ICRC's activities for and with women. The study contains a series of key points or main recommendations identifying specific ways in which the ICRC's response can be improved.  


 The ICRC’s study focuses on women in situations of armed conflict. It contains an analysis of the needs of displaced women, be they refugees or internally displaced persons. Although refugee women have succeeded in fleeing to the relative safety of a country of asylum, they are likely to have experienced many of the problems identified by the study: loss of their homes, separation from their family, widowhood, the responsibility of heading a household. They may also have been the victims of violence and abuse. While in the state of asylum they will at least be in relative safety from the effects of hostilities, it is evident that many of the problems and needs identified persist. The findings of the ICRC’s study are also relevant by analogy to refugee women in countries at peace.  


 The first point which the ICRC wishes to make this morning is that it shares UNHCR’s view that it is not additional instruments that are needed to improve the situation of refugee women.  


 Women facing War included an analysis of the extent to which international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law responded to the needs of women in situations of armed conflict. The study concludes that, if considered simultaneously, these three complementary bodies of law adequately cover the needs of women in armed conflict – one notable exception being the issue of personal documentation, a topic which is before us today.  


 Like UNHCR, the ICRC believes that there are now sufficient instruments and guidelines for the protection of women. The challenge lies in ensuring respect for these standards and achieving their practical application on the ground.  


 One way of achieving this is by a gender-sensitive interpretation and application of existing law. In this respect, the ICRC welcomes UNHCR’s two recent guidelines on international protection which are of particular relevance to women refugees: that on gender-related persecution and that on membership of a particular social group.  


 At the same time, the ICRC believes that it is necessary to identify the barriers to the implementation of these standards and to find practical ways of overcoming them: it is necessary to operationalise the rights and protections to which refugee women are entitled. In this respect, as a follow up to its study, the ICRC is formulating practical guidelines activity by activity (protection from violence, access to assistance, access to healthcare etc) based on lessons learned and best practices to address the key points identified in the study in order to improve its response. These guidelines will be presented to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in 2003.  


 The second point the ICRC wishes to make is that it shares UNHCR’s view that women cannot be considered separately from other members of the community. Their needs and the response to them affects all the community. The plight of women refugees and the risks they face cannot be severed from those of men as the absence of the men – because they are fighting or have died or are missing - means women become widows and have to assume the role and responsibility of heads of households. Similarly, the response to the needs of women affects other categories of persons who are dependent on them: children, the elderly, the sick. A holistic response is necessary which takes into account the specific vulnerabilities of women but also their strengths.  


 Finally, the ICRC wishes to touch upon the issue of sexual exploitation of refugee women. As Erica Feller stated in her introduction on Wednesday, the challenge before us now is to avoid its recurrence.  


 The ICRC’s study had already highlighted the risk of abuse or exploitation in exchange for food or other goods. The study recommends, first, that female staff should be included throughout all stages of assistance programmes to minimize the risks of such abuse and exploitation. Secondly, and this ties in with our discussions today, it recommends that women beneficiaries themselves should be involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the aid programmes.  


 Thank you, Mr Chairman.