The High Commissioner on Refugees:
In 1991, as desperate people scrambled through mountains of ice and mud to flee Nothern Iraq, John Telford was posted to the area as an emergency officer for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). When a few refugees took over food distribution, after days of utter confusion, "we thought we'd achieved a lot," Telford recalls. Later, however, UNHCR staff realized that food was not going to families headed by women. Only then did they notice that all the distributors they had appointed were men.
The result: malnutrition, exploitation, suffering. Telford remembers the shock he felt. "Had that group [of women] stood out in some way - visually or physically, because of their ethnic background, or a religious difference, or whatever - we would have made sure they got food," Telford recalls. "But because they were women, it didn't even occur to us."
Since the Kurdish crisis in 1991, UNHCR's emergency operations have been radically improved. Emergency teams and longer-term field staff receive extensive training to help them identify and respond to the specific needs of refugee women and their children. Still, throughout UNHCR, there are field officers with tales like Telford's to tell. Well-meaning all, they have nonetheless failed to identify, relate to, grapple with or, finally, solve the often crushing additional burdens that face women refugees.
Some of these burdens include such apparent trivialities as sanitary protection, whose absence can virtually immobilize a woman or adolescent girl. In between, of course, come the disproportionate burdens of child-rearing and domestic tasks; particular education needs for women lacking formal qualifications, who may be alone and responsible for family survival for the first time; and healthcare, including contraception.
"There are institutional and attitudinal changes that need to take place at UNHCR, " says Roberta Cohen, a human rights specialist who recently reviewed UNHCR's policy on women refugees for an in-house evaluation. "The mere enunciation of a policy is not sufficient." For the evaluation, Cohen - who is currently at the Brookings Institution studying internal displacement - headed a team that visited UNHCR operations in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica and Thailand. She looked into distribution systems, women's representation on refugee committees, access to female staffers and doctors, measures to prevent sexual violence, intelligent site planning - basic essentials.
"In one place I went, the rainy season was beginning, but there was so little plastic sheeting available that you could count the number of huts that had any," Cohen recalls. "When I spoke to the women, the first issue they brought up was the rain. Enough sheeting had arrived, but the male camp committee put in charge of distribution had sold most of it. The implementing partner said more sheeting was coming in. But had they changed the distribution system? No."
"Sometimes women are better at distributing aid than men," observes Rwandese refugee Esther Nyirangororano. "Men neglect things. When men are in charge of giving out plastic sheeting they often forget the weakest people, the old women who can't walk far or the widows. And men don't know anything about malnutrition. It's women who know."
Women are often reluctant to confide in male administrators - even if they ask. "I have walked around camps and seen doctors who have said 'no problems'," says Marie Lobo, UNHCR's Senior Social Services Officer. "I have then gone into tents and found women who have been raped, who have severe gynecological problems, who are pregnant, who have all kinds of complaints, but who would not go across the road because the NGOs have only male doctors. One lesson is the obvious, enormous need for more female staff in the field. But another is the ostrich approach - if you don't see the problem, it isn't there."
In Rwanda, during the appalling genocide of 1994, a recent report commissioned by the Fondation de France suggests that "virtually every adult woman or girl past puberty who was spared from massacre by the militias had been raped" - along with many younger children. Widows are said to comprise 30 percent of Rwandese women; there are estimates that 2,000-5,000 children may have been born of rape, many immediately abandoned.
Even inside UNHCR refugee camps, Inyumba Aloyisia, Rwanda's Minister for the Family, has stated that "young girls are being kept in refugee camps as sexual hostages by militia and soldiers of the former government." At least two Rwandese returnee girls claimed to have been confined as sexual slaves in camps inside Zaire - statements they have since retracted.
Attempts by some fieldworkers to look into the allegations of rape of Rwandese refugee women have, so far, drawn a blank - perhaps at least partly because of the extreme shame felt by rape victims in Rwandese culture. Moreover, not all Rwandese refugees are convinced that rape is a major problem. "I live alone in a blinde (hut), and I feel quite safe," says Euphrasie Nyiramajiambere, a Rwandese widow who is a member of several refugee organizations in Kibumba, near Goma. "There are so many people close by. If a man tried to come into my blinde at night it would be very easy to raise the alarm."
Nonetheless, many other women in the camps around Rwanda manifestly feel unsafe. "The Rwandese women want to be involved in the distribution of food and nonfood items," says Maricela Daniel, a regional support officer for refugee children and women based in Kigali, who has long experience in human rights work in former Yugoslavia. "They also tell us to focus on the situation of sick widows and single mothers, who are in a particularly difficult position, and also women who have been abandoned by their husbands, who take with them all the non-food items.
Given the security situation in Zaire's Goma camps, adequate investigation of the issue may well be impossible. According to Betsy Greve, a protection officer in Goma, UNHCR does plan to give small cash stipends to a network of women refugees who will visit other refugees, sector by sector, to gather information on sexual violence, nutrition and other family issues. Greve says that women's committees often exist, but despite UNHCR's instructions, NGOs sometimes fail to invite them to consultative meetings.
UNHCR has already developed formal guidelines on preventing and responding to sexual violence, based on detailed recommendations by field workers experienced with the rape and piracy attacks on Vietnamese boat-people, rapes of Somali women in Kenya, or the 'ethnic cleansing' rapes of Bosnian women. The guidelines aim to provide field workers with practical, non-specialist advice on the medical, psychological and legal ramifications of sexual violence. They are also intended to dispel the discomfort of many refugee workers with such acts - or any tendency to dismiss them as an inevitable by-product of social breakdown and war. It is possible to prevent rape - not just treat the victims.
Similarly, in Cote d'Ivoire, field workers found women refugees risking attack in the forest because they could not bring themselves to use latrines that had been placed alongside those for men, in the center of the encampment. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy highlights the link between clever camp design and better security. "Poorly lit camps, latrines at unsafe distances, and lack of privacy all create tense and hostile living conditions for women," she recently told NGOs.
"It's not just attacks on women - it's security in general," points out Yvette Stevens, chief of UNHCR's Program and Technical Support Section. "Take lighting. Sometimes administrative buildings are lit, or warehouses. But you hardly ever find lighting where refugees are - not even a strip of solar lighting near the latrines. I remember once, in Zimbabwe, we spent the night in a refugee camp, at a time when there were reports that RENAMO might cross the border. We went outside and it was dark - jet black - and I thought, what if RENAMO comes tonight?"
"A camp is not just a physical environment; it is a social framework," concurs Wolfgang Neumann, UNHCR's senior physical planner. "Any number of details make the difference between a bearable life and a life that is unbearable." Well designed camps can alleviate the problems of camp security. They can also improve women's health.
"Look at washing facilities," Neumann says. "Are we ready to pay for a concrete platform, so that women are not standing up to their knees in mud when they wash? Of course, a camp that really considers women's issues, children's issues, and protection of the environment will cost far more money. And that is usually the problem. Many of these things just cannot be done for the same price."
But improving assistance to refugee women is not just a question of funds. It is fundamentally about the attitude of staff members, most importantly, field officers and representatives. Wairimu Karago spent four years as UNHCR Representative in Zimbabwe. "I believed very strongly that we needed to address [women's and children's] issues," Karago says. "I couldn't pretend I didn't have time: this was a stable refugee situation.
"I called a meeting of the whole office and I said 'Here are the guidelines on women, and on children, and we are going to go through them. We are going to do a needs assessment in the camps, and, in a very organized way, we are going to implement these guidelines.'" Karago insisted on bringing the issue up at every meeting with government and NGOs, and, she says, "made people accountable for this issue. I followed it up. I made it clear someone was interested. I drilled it into people's heads that this was an issue. I had very supportive staff, and we made it work."
One initiative, which encountered considerable resistance, was Karago's plan to train women refugees to make their own sanitary towels and underwear - a skill clearly useful to any woman between the ages of 15 and 50. In Zimbabwe, as in many other operations, women refugees were not issued sanitary towels free. They also had little money. "We did a survey in the camps as part of our needs assessment," says Karago. "The participation rate of menstruating girls and women in schools, skills training, and other activities was falling, because they had no protection and thus could not travel far from home. What they needed was reusable cloth."
The skills-training program taught women to make their own towels and provided a women-only forum that could address other issues and pass on other messages from UNHCR to the wider community. But after a year the funds faded, and the program died. "The women were delighted, it was useful, and we fought to keep it," says Karago, regretfully. "But these things happen."
"This sort of thing should not happen," responds Ann Howarth- Wiles,UNHCR's Coordinator for Refugee Women. "Such activities should not be dependent on ear-marked funds. They should be considered essential." Women bleed one week in four. This is probably news to no one. In extreme situations, a woman refugee with an acute sense of embarrassment or culturally imposed restrictions, who is relying on a rag, may not leave her house during that time to get food or firewood, or to take her child to a clinic.
Nonetheless, few UNHCR operations have, to date, grasped the need to supply sanitary protection. Of course, many women refugees use cloths, as they would in their traditional communities. But in camps, their supplies of cloths are scarce, they may not be able to wash them in private, and help from the extended family is limited.
"Field officers on the ground have a lot of leeway," comments Janet Lim, chief of UNHCR's Emergency Preparedness and Response Section. "Any program officer can work sanitary towels into a budget, and I think no one would question it. But because it's never done, no one ever does it. The field staff has to be made aware of the consequences of not meeting this need - all the more so because they are not immediately obvious."
"I went once on a highpowered inter-agency mission - five men and me - to former Yugoslavia," confides Lobo. "And we went around and asked if there were any problems, and everyone said no. And I said 'Wait, let me talk to the women'. And the issues came up. No sanitary towels. No proper, private bathing space to wash. Gynecological problems. No underwear. These were things they had never said. Talking about underwear to a man - of course, they'd never said it. So we insisted that sanitary towels be put in family packs, along with underwear and other personal items. I kept insisting, 'This is routine, they have to have it.'
"Our male colleagues made a fuss. 'Imagine opening up a family pack and finding sanitary towels!' they said. As if it were something horrifying, something outrageous - not something completely normal."
But many staffers are far from satisfied with the gains made to date. "If you raise the question of sanitary towels, you get little embarrassed giggles and they trivialize the whole issue," Howarth-Wiles says. "And I keep seeing how consultant physical planners haven't addressed the issues of toilets - putting men and women side by side - or create washing areas without any private area where women can wash their cloth sanitary pads. In many ways, the message is still not getting through."
Of course, in many ways, it is now getting through. UNHCR is beginning to come to grips with women's issues. Progress has been spectacular in some areas - in Central America, for example. There, specifically designed micro-development projects train women in nontraditional skills like bee-keeping and threshing, to improve their access to the income-generating economy, and NGOs have been issued specific targets for women to benefit from 50 percent of wageearning, income-generating and training opportunities for equal pay. Where staff focus on violations of women's rights as closely as they do on other protection issues, the benefits for the refugees themselves can be immense.
"We were 11,000 refugees all together, most of us women," says Maria Eugenia, a Salvadorian who returned from Honduras in the late 1980s. "In exile, we became very united, of necessity, although we did not know each other. In every camp we had a women's committee and worked to solve the problems we faced. We had to organize to get our rights. The men received good shoes but because we were just women we only had rubber thongs.
"We stated our problems and tried to find solutions. People started to learn skills. We had chicken farms and different types of workshops, making clothes and shoes... When we left Salvador we had no committees or any type of organization. Here, outside in the countryside, peasant women were ignored. We could not vote, even; we had no voice. And now, thanks to UNHCR, and to our organization while we were refugees, we are being heard."
Originally published: Spring, 1995
Official publication of the UNHCR