Human Rights and Refugees: Women and Children First

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Commission on Human Rights is meeting this month in Geneva to discuss how best to integrate human rights in all UN activities.

UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and governments must work harder to protect the rights of some of the world's most vulnerable people: refugee women and children.

More than 80 percent of the world's 13.2 million refugees are women and children. They suffer double jeopardy: A denial of human rights made them refugees; but as refugees they are also frequently abused, simply because of their gender or age.

When they cross a border to flee persecution or conflict, refugee women and children often lose the protection of established social support systems, such as schools, women's groups, and traditional family structures. The crisis in Rwanda, for example, separated thousands of minors from their relatives and their communities. Many remain in camps or centers, hoping to restart their lives.

Refugee camps are usually Darwinian universes in which the strongest prevail. When agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provide food rations or discuss the location of water wells in the camps, it's invariably a male leadership with whom we must negotiate, even though it is women who cook and collect water for their families. In recent years we and other agencies have made a point of including women in all aspects of decisionmaking in refugee camps, but many refugee women remain voiceless.

We have ample and clear guidelines, within solid legal frameworks, for the protection of these women and children; but relief agencies, host governments, and we at UNHCR must do more on the ground to make those policies work.

Sometimes, it's not for lack of trying. In 1993 armed groups of bandits were preying on the Dadaab camps in Kenya, looting dwellings and raping refugee women as they scoured the surrounding area for firewood. UNHCR and donor countries started a Women Victims of Violence project that included erecting live thorn-bush fences around the camps, stationing police nearby, and setting up a system to prosecute assailants.

The incidence of rape decreased; but recent floods in the region rendered the thorn-bush fences useless and immobilized police patrols. During 1997 there were 88 reported rapes in the camps; 16 rapes were reported during just one nine-day period in January. The US is funding a firewood delivery project in Dadaab so women don't have to risk leaving camps.

Dadaab illustrates the problems of refugee and returnee women from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. While international standards on the rights of all people to physical security are clear and supported worldwide, often our conventions seem to have little impact on the ground. Refugee victims of sexual violence, including both women and children, are doubly victimized because, very often, there are no reproductive health services or counseling available in the refugee camps.

While a few countries have issued guidelines on gender-based persecution - which, among other things, allow for the recognition of rape as a violation of human rights, and not just as a criminal act - others should be strongly encouraged to do the same.

Together with the World Health Organization and other agencies, UNHCR is actively working in refugee communities to eradicate female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices, such as forced, early marriage, that violate human rights as well as pose serious health risks. But governments and local authorities must also be persuaded to play an active role in protecting these rights.

Sometimes, as in war-ravaged Liberia today, there are only limited community structures to offer such protection. With schools and infrastructure destroyed, there are few activities to occupy the majority of Liberian returnees who are under 18. But there are plenty of armed forces that routinely recruit children. The lack of activities for returning youths has already led to migration back to asylum countries, as parents try to keep children out of combat boots.

In all of these areas, the need for sustained international action is paramount. The legal framework for this action is well-established. Children's rights, for example, are codified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified treaty of its type. We must exploit the near-universal support for this convention by using it as a framework for action. The recent appointment of a UN Special Representative on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children is a further step in the right direction.

Children's and women's rights are increasingly perceived as the front line in the defense of all human rights. But unless governments, NGOs and UN agencies devote resources, the protection of refugee women and children will lag behind.

* Dennis McNamara is director of the division of international protection for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. The views in this article are his own.

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