Go to Blog
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Landmark Refugee Conference Puts Tackling Sexual and Gender-based Violence at Top of the Agenda

“I will do everything possible to uphold and strengthen UNHCR’s corporate commitment to address sexual and gender-based violence and to support states in ensuring access of survivors to justice,” declared UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, as he opened a historic ministerial meeting to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Statelessness Convention on December 7 and 8 in Geneva. One hundred and forty six countries attended the event, more than 70 of them represented at ministerial level, including the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For the Women’s Refugee Commission, founded in 1989 to draw attention to the sorely overlooked needs of refugee women and children, the prominence given to addressing sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) at this high-level meeting was a landmark in how far the cause of refugee women has advanced over the past 22 years. For me, representing the Women’s Refugee Commission in Geneva, it was also a moment for personal reflection. I had attended the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention 10 years previously. It was heartening to see not only the personal commitment of the UN High Commissioner to addressing GBV, but also the number of government delegations that pledged support to enhance the protection of refugee women and tackle GBV. Equally encouraging was the attention given to the plight of stateless women by so many governments and the recognition of the need to address discriminatory nationality laws.

The theme of protecting refugee women dominated the opening session of the ministerial meeting. The event started with a film featuring refugee women talking about their experiences and the challenges they face. The film was a culmination of a year of Dialogues with refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls in seven countries around the world as part of the 60th anniversary commemorations. The most pervasive and endemic threat identified by all the women in the Dialogues was sexual and gender-based violence. Guterres told the State delegates that sexual violence prevents women and girls—and also many boys and men—from leading normal and productive lives. “They are at risk of rape and sexual abuse at home, in public spaces, at work and at school. Perpetrators are rarely prosecuted and punished. Many women are forced into survival sex to provide for their families.”

Guterres pledged that in 2012, UNHCR would launch a series of special projects aimed at reinforcing its efforts to address the specific threats and vulnerabilities faced by refugee and displaced women and girls. “If we cannot get protection right for them, we won’t get it right for anyone” he concluded.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took up the theme of protecting and enhancing women’s rights. Of the 28 pledges that the US government made at the 60th anniversary event, Clinton highlighted one of particular priority both to the U.S. government and to herself personally—discrimination against women resulting in statelessness. She announced that the U.S. has launched an initiative to build global awareness about this issue and will work with governments to change discriminatory nationality laws, ensure universal birth registration and establish systems to enable stateless persons to acquire citizenship.

As is customary, nongovernmental organizations presented a statement at the meeting, The Women’s Refugee Commission made key contributions to this statement, which called on States and UNHCR to “prioritize efforts and commit additional resources to preventing gender-based violence in all emergency response and longer-term programming” and drew States’ attention to the Five Commitments to Refugee Women made 10 years earlier by the then-High Commissioner on the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. Other critical areas of concern to the Women’s Refugee Commission were also raised in the NGO statement: these included improving protection and service delivery for urban refugeesdisabilities are able to exercise their rights and access services; and calling on States to uphold refugees’ right to work and support livelihood initiatives for refugees and host communities.

Although many governments gave prominence in their statements to protecting refugee women, the joint Ministerial Communiqué issued at the close of the meeting made no reference to women and girls, or to tackling GBV. This makes it all the more critical for civil society to monitor and hold governments accountable for the individual pledges they made.

It is time now to put the words into action. UNHCR has said that it will provide a full publication of all the pledges made by States and will report back on progress at its Executive Committee’s Standing Committee in June 2012. NGOs must press governments to honor the declarations they made on improving the protection of women and girls so that these become a reality and have real, measurable impacts on the lives of millions of refugee women and girls worldwide. For its part, UNHCR must commit greater resources to protection and programming for refugee women and girls and must ensure that it is adequately staffed at the highest level to achieve this goal.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence