Gender-based violence and the quality of health care and schooling were among the top concerns raised by refugee women in the latest round of UNHCR consultations that ended over the weekend in Zambia.
The UN refugee agency’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, joined donors and other stakeholders in reaffirming their commitment to support and empower refugee women, at the Fifth Regional Dialogue with Refugee Women and Girls held in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
During the consultations, UNHCR and its partners heard from 10 refugee women from Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Somalia living in Zambia’s urban areas and Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee settlements, who represented the views of over 80 women and men who had taken part in preceding discussions.
An overriding concern was the impunity of people who commit crimes, especially sexual violence and rape. Refugees told the group about the high number of rapes among adolescents and children as young as four years old. Women fear to leave their children alone at home, or to send their daughters to overcrowded schools. Health care resources are limited and hard to access.
“There are so many forced teenaged pregnancies but there is not enough medical care,” said one refugee. “Girls die on their way to the clinic simply because their hips are not wide enough.”
Responding to this problem, UNHCR’s Feller said, “I am seriously disturbed when I hear these stories and hear of the impunity. If a perpetrator does not get punished, it makes the victim a double victim. It is our collective failure that in 2011 there are still women who face these problems on a daily basis. It is everyone’s responsibility to empower refugee women and to provide them with the skills which can make them more independent.”
Education is an important empowerment tool, but “some schools have 90 pupils in one class. Scholarships are rare. Girls drop out early and are forced into early marriages,” noted a refugee.
The refugees also complained about the lack of freedom of movement. Currently, work permits are linked to identity cards, which makes an urban refugee illegal as soon as the work permit expires. Another problem is that self-employment permits are currently linked only to the male head of the family, so that when he fell sick, the family is left helpless. The refugees appealed for these permits to be made transferable within the family.
In addition to these daily challenges, some of the refugees were also concerned about the cessation of refugee status for Angolans and Rwandans scheduled for the end of this year. While a large number of refugees wish to return home to Angola and Rwanda, a smaller group has asked the government to give special consideration to refugees with family ties in Zambia, as well as long stayers and those with specific concerns against return.
“Cessation is a positive development as no refugee should be a refugee forever,” said Feller. “However, those who do not wish to return and have valid reasons, should be considered.”
Friday’s consultations were the fifth of seven dialogues being held worldwide as part of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. They aim to identify the major protection problems that refugee women face, and to come up with improvements the refugees can achieve themselves with help from UNHCR, the host government and the donor community. Dialogues have already been organized in India, Jordan, Colombia, Uganda and Zambia.
Zambia was chosen because of its long and generous history of hosting refugees. “By hosting the dialogues, Zambia leads the way in giving refugee women a voice and empowering them. The Dialogue model is one we want to duplicate around the world,” said Feller.
The final two dialogues will be held in Thailand and Finland. Recommendations from the dialogues will feed into a ministerial-level meeting to be held in Geneva in December 2011
By Astrid Van Genderen Stort
In Lusaka, Zambia