Women refugees form as a general rule the 50 percent of any refugee population. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and often their family structure, females are often particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Only in 2005, there were approximately 12.7 million refugees in the world, roughly half of them women.

They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families.

The environment that surrounds refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, particularly in situations of ongoing conflict, is notoriously dangerous. Yet every day, in hundreds of camps around the world, millions of women and girls venture out into this danger, risking rape, assault, abduction, theft, exploitation or even murder, in order to collect enough firewood to cook for their families.

Many women flee their homes and countries without their husbands and sometimes without their families. For instance, in eastern Chad, where more than 210,000 refugees fled the violence in Darfur of Sudan, international organizations report that many women fled their home villages in Darfur and arrived to the camps in Chad without husbands. According to reports, it is not uncommon to meet widows, mothers who’ve lost their sons, fathers, brothers, and those who were raped as a result of Janjaweed attacks in Sudan

A glance at statistics around the world shows that gender-based violence is endemic worldwide and although is not unique to refugee and Internal Displaced People situations, it often becomes more acute during conflict and displacement.

UNHCR has committed itself to implementing five key commitments that will advance the rights of refugee women, mainstream gender equality, and help prevent and ensure compassionate responses to sexual and gender-based violence. The commitments include the reinforcement of the participation of women in the management committees of the refugee camps and in the distribution of assistance, the development of programes to combat sexual violence, including domestic violence, against refugee women, the individual registration of women asylum seekers as applicable for men and the regular provision of sanitary materials to refugee women.

In terms of the refugee/asylum procedure, UNHCR also recommends that a same-sex interviewer be assigned to speak to women apart from other family members in order to allow greater privacy and freedom of expression.

Historical Background

The Refugee Convention of 1951 was initially meant to protect victims of World War II in Europe and as such did not include the issue of persecution for reasons of gender.

Years later with the evolution of the geopolitical and economical context and the upsurge of mainly internal armed conflicts, the need to address specifically the issue of gender-based violence in refugee situations started to emerge.

UNHCR released its own set of guidelines affirming that the international definition of refugees "covers gender-related claims". These include forms of persecution that are particular to women, or that primarily affect women, or occur because they are women—such as severe forms of gender discrimination. Gender-related asylum claims can include sexual violence, domestic violence, trafficking, coerced family planning, forced abortion, female genital mutilation/cutting, honour killings, forced marriage, punishment for going against social mores and discrimination against same-sex partners.

In 1993, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt guidelines that define women as a "particular social group" as put forth by the 1951 Convention. This laid the foundation for gender guidelines in other countries, including Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US.

Also Cyprus in introducing its national refugee law in 2000, specifically provided that a refugee or asylum seeker is not to be returned to a country where his life or freedom would be at risk for reasons – among others- of gender.

Finally, the EU Qualification Directive, which sets out minimum standards for qualification for refugee status or other forms of international protection in the EU, confirms that acts of a gender-specific nature can constitute persecution.

written in 2007 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

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