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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderDossier
View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Refugee women

by Patricia Smyke

'With my husband. my parents and my home all gone, there were rimes when I just wanted to give up, just lie down and die. But l couldn't. What would happen to my children Z.. Later I found out that when I had to speak up, I could. When I had to learn new ways. I did. I made decisions. I'm stronger now than I ever dreamed I could be.'

Those are the words of a return to Ethiopia with her children after several years in Somalia. Her testimony shows that there can be positive and negative aspects to any refugee's experience At the very least, forced uprooting will mean change. Those of us concerned about development have a vital stake in making sure that the changes, insofar as possible, go in a positive direction.

This is especially true in regard to refugee women. With their dependents, they make up the majority of refugees and displaced persons, sometimes up to 80%. Refugee women have special needs which, if not met, can result in lifelong suffering for the women and their families and a great loss for their country. On the other hand, if their needs are met and they have some possibility for self-help, refugee women can make indispensable contributions to the refugee community and bring much needed skills and experience to their country when they return home.

For most refugees and displaced persons, their forced uprooting is accompanied by violence, death, separation from family, and acute physical, emotional and economic hardship.

The impact of these experiences is different for men and women, for adults and children, for the elderly and disabled. All these groups, because they have special needs, run special risks. Yet to label them 'vulnerable' is inadequate. It puts the emphasis on these refugees as victims. But they are also individuals with a variety of strengths, skills, experience and ideas that can be put to good use in their new situation.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has published Guidelines on Refugee Women.

The International NGO Working Group on Refugee Women (IWGRW), has published Working with Refugee Women: A Practical Guide. After several decades of sometimes sad experience, and after much consultation with refugee women... we know what needs to be done The challenge is to get recommendations put into practice.

The development community should be familiar with the issues raised in the Guidelines and Working with Refugee Women Many of them parallel the gender related issues that come up in development activities. As repatriation of refugees goes forward in a number of countries, it is timely to review some of the issues here.

Refugee women need physical protection from violence, which may come from the police or soldiers of the host country, or from within the refugee community. In some refugee situations, especially those of long duration, people lead lives of great frustration Normal social restraints tend to break down, and the level of violence escalates. Women are often the victims.

Refugee women need protection from sexual exploitation, especially a women who is the sole provider/protector for dependent children and older people. Her only means of guaranteeing the family food supply and safety may be complying with the demands for sexual favours made by guards, camp administrators or refugee men.

Women have special needs with regard to legal protection of their rights as refugees. Women often have difficulty gaining recognition as political refugees. And very few countries recognise gender-related persecution as grounds for granting refugee status (that is, when a women is persecuted for an act that would not be punishable if committed by a man).

It is possible to provide refugee women with the physical and legal protection they need to ensure their basic human rights It requires better training and discipline of border guards, police, administrators and the people processing requests for asylum. It requires more consultation with refugee women and men to identify protection problems and find solutions In one case security was greatly improved after refugees pushed for some lighting in the camp at night.

Equal access

Refugee women are often at a disadvantage when it comes to getting assistance for themselves and their families, whether it be food, housing, health care, education or opportunities for training and earning income.

Many 'access' problems can be avoided if refugee women are consulted in the planning and implementation of assistance programmes, even in the stress of an emergency situation (Every influx of refugees is an emergency). If programmes are not planned from the beginning with the needs of refugee women and children in mind, there is little chance that they will be changed to meet those needs later One can find plenty of examples of this in two areas of great importance to refugee women: health care and education/skills training.

Health care

Refugee women may miss out on needed health care for themselves and their family if clinics are staffed only by male health workers or doctors. if health posts are inconveniently located, or if a visit takes more time than women can spare from family duties.

A refugee camp or settlement presents health education possibilities that should not be missed but quite often are. We are all the losers when refugee women spend long years in a camp and do not learn about primary health care, preventive health measures. nutrition. family planning, AIDS, etc. Everyone gains when refugee women are trained as clinic assistants, home visitors or community health workers.

Maternal and child health (MCH) needs are usually fairly well met in established camps and settlements However, women have other specific health needs at all stages of their lives, and often these are not met. Young girl refugees are a case in point. There is often a gap in services for them Once they are too old for the MCH clinic (at 5 or 6), they may not see the inside of a health facility again until they need pre-natal care themselves. But from age 7 to adolescence is a crucial time for a girl's health Girls of this age need screening and treatment for anaemia and malaria before those two conditions endanger a first pregnancy Girls (and boys too) urgently need to be informed about sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS It can be done in ways that are culturally appropriate and acceptable to the refugee community.

Education and training

There can be little doubt about the benefits that an educated women brings to her family and community Yet education programmes are the first to be cut when money for refugee assistance is scarce This is short-sighted indeed from a development perspective, for a woman who has had even a few years of schooling is more likely to marry at a later age and have a smaller, healthier family; get prenatal care and have safe childbirth; have higher earning capacity; and have more confidence in herself.

Where refugee training programmes exist, women may not be included because men are presumed to be the wage earners who need it more, or because it is not customary for women to be active outside the home.

Again this is a great loss for women and their home country, because we know that it is possible to set up successful, culturally acceptable education and training programmes for refugee women.

The programmes work better, of course. if refugee women have a part in planning and running them. This has an added benefit: it is great training for participation in community development when women go back home.

Many refugee women in Central America got their first taste of community development activities while serving on refugee management committees in camps and settlements They have gone home with formidable organising skills and a strong sense of solidarity.

In summary, returning refugee women can make a unique contribution to development if their needs have been met through 'people oriented' planning and programming; if they have had a chance to 'speak up', take part, and not only cope with change, but help to plan and direct it; and if they have had the necessary support to overcome the hardships of forced uprooting and discover their own strengths.


1) Of all the refugees from developing countries who flee across national borders, the vast majority do eventually return to their home country Some integrate into a neighbouring country Only 3-5 % are resettled in industrialised countries.
2) Available upon request from UNHCR, P.O. Box 2500, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland. UNHCR has also published Guidelines on Refugee Children
3) Available in English and Spanish from the IWGRW, c/o Webster University in Geneva, 1293 Bellevue, Switzerland.