The following recommendations are suggested for the 2004 UN Commission on the Status of Women. They include actions to be taken by governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations to advance the participation of refugee, returnee and internally displaced women.
1. Be inclusive when referencing war-affected women.
Millions of refugee women and girls live in refugee camps, and UN documents(1) reference this experience. But millions of women and girls also reside outside of camps – as urban refugees, or among local populations and communities. These women are often the most marginalized and can be the most difficult to identify for purposes of participation, as they are not receiving humanitarian assistance or registered by UN agencies. When returning to their country of origin, returning refugee women can experience ostracism and at times more hardship than when living as refugees. As we move forward in promoting the rights of refugees, it is vital that language reflects the different experiences of refugee women and is inclusive of those who are living in camps, as well as other settings.
RECOMMENDATION: Ensure all language referencing refugee and internally displaced populations specifies living in camps and other situations.
2. Ensure safe and informed participation for all displaced women in elections.
Registration & Identification Documents
As cited in the Expert Group Meeting report (2), “Before the election, requirements for registration and for documentation can discriminate against those women who do not have identification in their own name or against internally displaced persons and returning refugees who have lost identification documents.” Women fleeing violence do not only lose documentation, but rather are often stripped of identification by border guards, local police or warring factions as they flee from conflict. Others lack government-issued documentation in their own name, and must rely on husbands or other male family members, as they are included as “dependents.” Particularly in the case of internally displaced populations, many women face obstacles in obtaining government-issued documentation in their own names. These obstacles include fees, requirements to return to places of origin and women’s lack of knowledge about their rights. In addition, displaced women are often not easily accessible by authorities, or are among populations being targeted for ethnic, cultural or other reasons.
RECOMMENDATION: Agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, national authorities and host governments must issue individual documentation and registration of refugee and internally displaced women during all phases of conflict, to better ensure their capacity to participate in elections in the post-conflict phase.
Recognize Conflict-Affected Communities Worldwide
Millions of women who are internally displaced due to conflict in countries such as Colombia, northern Uganda and Turkey are unable to participate in national elections because they lack security, documentation, access to information and freedom of movement. These women are often marginalized by governments due to their ethnicity, race or social group and thereby neglected in registration and other processes. Internally displaced women are also difficult to reach by governments and international human rights and assistance agencies because they live in areas of intense violence, as they are too poor or otherwise unable to flee from the conflict.
The UN Commission on the Status of Women must address the participation of all internally displaced women in elections, as the right to participate is explicitly recognized in the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.(3) This requires special programs providing women with access to information, a means for registration, individual identification/documentation for women and appropriate security to exercise their rights. In addition, special measures may be necessary to support internally displaced women and representatives from women’s organizations to run for office at municipal, local or national levels.
RECOMMENDATION: Ensure commitments to women’s participation in elections include all women internally displaced by conflict, not only in post-conflict environments.
Increased attention must be given to monitoring the participation of internally displaced and refugee women in post-conflict situations, including Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. As documented by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (4), in addition to positive steps taken by the government of Sierra Leone to include internally displaced women in the 2002 elections, many traveled long distances to vote and experienced intimidation and severe difficulty in paying for transportation. Moreover, there are no statistics available on the numbers of displaced women who voted, which would be important in understanding how successful the Sierra Leone model was in reaching the IDP population, the priority issues for displaced women and expectations from government. While the displaced women interviewed by the Women’s Commission in Freetown voted overwhelmingly for peace, shelter and education in 2002, today the homeless citizens in Grafton camp are still waiting for their elected government to provide them with shelter and basic services.
RECOMMENDATION: Ensure the voting priorities and concerns of displaced and returnee women are understood and monitored in the long-term context.
3. Strengthen implementation of existing instruments on women’s participation in conflict prevention, management and reconstruction.
Since the first world conference on women in Mexico City in 1975, the international community has established mechanisms, policies, guidelines and reports to advance women’s participation and protection in armed conflict and refugee situations.
Although closing gaps in women’s participation in elections and peace processes deserves attention, we must not lose this opportunity to fully advance the foundation built over the past three decades. We must not forget the participation of millions of refugee and displaced women living in “protracted” or long-term settings such as Burmese in Thailand (350,000), Afghans in Pakistan (2.5 million) and Palestinians in Lebanon (300,000). We must not forget the millions of women and girls living in conflict in Haiti and Liberia. We must not forget our collective responsibility to move from paper to action, e.g. to act – implement, monitor, fund, undertake – these commitments to ensure that they are realized.
RECOMMENDATION: The following key UN commitments on participation should be put into action. It is urged that they be fully and systematically implemented through inclusion in national policies and programs, funding initiatives and monitoring strategies to reflect commitment by the UN, governments, non-governmental organizations and local communities in reaching ALL women affected by armed conflict:
UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (1998)
1. Voting. “Internally displaced persons, whether or not they are living in camps, shall not be discriminated against as a result of their displacement in the enjoyment of the following rights: inter alia (c) the right to associate freely and participate equally in community affairs; (d) the right to vote and to participate in governmental and public affairs, including the right to have access to the means necessary to exercise this right.” Principle 22.
2. Documentation. “Every human being has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. To give effect to this right for internally displaced persons, the authorities concerned shall issue to them all documents necessary for the enjoyment and exercise of their legal rights, such as passports, personal identification documents, birth certificates and marriage certificates. In particular, the authorities shall facilitate the issuance of new documents or the replacement of documents lost in the course of displacement without imposing unreasonable conditions such as requiring the return to one’s area of habitual residence in order to obtain these or other required documents. Women and men shall have equal rights to obtain such necessary documents and shall have the right to have such documentation issued in their own names”. Principle 20.
3. Return programs. “Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration. Internally displaced persons who have returned to their homes or places of habitual residence or who have resettled in another part of the country shall not be discriminated against as a result of their having been displaced. They shall have the right to participate fully and equally in public affairs at all levels and have equal access to public services.” Principle 28 (2) & 29 (1).
4. Planning and relocation of IDP camps. “If displacement occurs in situations other than during the emergency stages of armed conflict and disasters, the following guarantees shall be complied with: inter alia (d) The authorities concerned shall endeavor to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation.” Principle 7(3).
UNHCR Five Commitments to Refugee Women (2001)
1. All offices will continue training and other on-going activities to encourage the active participation of women in all management and leadership committees of refugees in urban, rural and camp settings, including return areas. Where it is not already the case, the aim is to accelerate progress towards ensuring that 50% of representatives are women.
2. UNHCR commits to the individual registration of all refugee men and women and to provide them with relevant documentation ensuring their individual security, freedom of movement and access to essential services. This commitment is reiterated by the conclusion on registration adopted by the 52nd Session of the Executive Committee Meeting of UNHCR.
3. Recognising that sexual and gender based violence continues to be a severe impediment to the advancement of women and the enjoyment of their rights, UNHCR commits to developing integrated country-level strategies to address it.
4. To the extent possible, UNHCR will continue to ensure that refugee women participate directly and indirectly in the management and distribution of food and non-food items.
5. The provision of sanitary materials to all women and girls of concern will become standard practice in all UNHCR assistance programs. The Deputy High Commissioner has already instructed all offices to prioritise and recognize provision of these materials as central to women’s dignity and health.
As expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: “We know that refugee women are not passive recipients of our assistance – they are productive and self-reliant when we provide the support they need. As we broaden our partnerships, we must make strong efforts to ensure that women are full, active and dynamic participants”. (5)
(1)Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; Outcome Document of the 23rd Special Session of the UN General Assembly, “Gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century,” and its agreed conclusions on women and armed conflict adopted at its forty-second session in 1998; Report of the UN Secretary-General on Women, Peace and Security (2002), UNIFEM Independent Experts’ Assessment Women, War, Peace (2002).
(2)Enhancing Women’s Participation in Electoral Processes in Post-conflict Countries. UN Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Department of Political Affairs, 20 February 2004. EGM/ELEC/2004/
(3)“Internally displaced persons, whether or not they are living in camps, shall not be discriminated against as a result of their displacement in the enjoyment of the following rights: inter alia (d) the right to vote and to participate in governmental and public affairs, including the right to have access to the means necessary to exercise this right.” Principle 22: UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1996.
(4)Voting for Peace, Survival and Self-Reliance: Internally Displaced Women go to the Polls in Sierra Leone Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, September 2002.
(5)Memorandum from the High Commissioner: UNHCR Commitments to Refugee Women, Geneva 12 December 2001 OP 5.4