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Women Refugees – Why We Need to Understand Human Rights from a Women’s Rights Perspective

Women and girls constitute around half of the global refugee population. However, the situation of refugees is often assessed through a male lense.

Women and girls account for about half of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population in the world according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention, several measures have been taken and laws implemented to tackle the particular situation of refugee women. But in 2015, refugee women are still at constant risk of having their human rights violated.

Sexual violence, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, sterilisation, denial of access to contraception, human trafficking, forced marriage, as well as repressive social norms are forms of violence and persecution faced mainly by women. It is therefore of major relevance to address gender-based violations of rights and the gender-related forms that these violations take.

 

The 1951 Refugee Convention does not mention gender or sex as a reason of flight and overlooks the issue that women might be persecuted by virtue of the fact that they are women. In the early 1990s, there were some attempts to address women as a specific group in need of having their human rights recognised and protected. In 1991, UNHCR produced the Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women. In the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 it was declared that “factors that cause the flight of refugee women, other displaced women in need of international protection and internally displaced women may be different from those affecting men. These women continue to be vulnerable to abuses of their human rights during and after their flight.” Due to radically changing dynamics of forced displacement, the 1991 Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women were in 2008 replaced by the UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls.

But despite the mentioned and a variety of other declarations and resolutions such as CEDAW, reports show that protecting female refugees from gender based violence remains a complex problem.

Mary Kreutzer and Corinna Milborn, both political scientists and authors of several books and articles on human rights, migration and women’s rights, state in their book ‘Commodity Woman’ (Ware Frau) published in 2008 that although the guidelines on women’s refugees contribute to the improvement and the perception of female specific reasons for flight, they criticise the unwillingness of countries and organisations to legally recognise these reasons. The fact that many women do not report their experience with rape or sexual abuse due to shame, crimes which are themselves human rights violations, draws attention to the lack of legal awareness of the structural oppression of women. It is difficult to convince women refugees that women’s rights apply to them when there is a lack of a clear legal position.

Women and girls constitute around half of the global refugee population and it is essential to identify and understand human rights from a women’s rights perspective. According to the Network Refugee Research, in reality the situation of refugees is often assessed through the lens of male experiences. This is due to the fact that with the establishment of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee was stereotypically seen as a young, politically-active man. As stated by Terre Des Femmes Switzerland two thirds of all refugees coming to Europe are men. This fact and the lingering stereotype of a refugee as male, has led to a situation by which the persecution of women and the situation of women during the asylum procedure are not given enough attention. Terre Des Femmes further argues that ‘gender-based motives are not being sufficiently taken into account and that they are not always seen as grounds for asylum’. The Center for Gender and Refugees Studies states that one of the problems of the interpretation of refugee law from a male perspectives is the privilege of ‘public’ over ‘private’ actionNora Markard, professor at the University of Hamburg, identifies that within this paradigm the suppression of a demonstration counts as a legitimate reason of flight while domestic violence does not. But women are, due to gender roles and expectations politically active in different ways, such as in providing shelter for political activists, and are therefore affected in a manner that falls outside of the ‘public’ sphere. Women suffer more than men from ‘private’ violence, which is not conducted by the state but a non-state actor, for example, a member of the family.

 

Among the countries in the European Union that included in their domestic refugee legislation an explicit reference to gender or sex as grounds for refugee status, or have recognised that particular forms of gender-related violence as form of persecution, are Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. More countries need to follow their example and strengthen the adoption of a domestic law which includes gender or sex as a reason of flight. Furthermore, one of the most important tasks needed in international law is the acknowledgement of women’s specific reasons for flight, and to define it as legally binding. It is crucial to break down stereotypes and the structural barriers, as argued by Georgina Firth and Barbara Mauthe, so there can be space in legal reasoning that can incorporate the individual, context-specific experiences of refugee women.[1] Because in the end, all refugees are individuals with their own story and their own needs.

The author notes that flight and the situation of women refugees is a complex process and that only a limited perspective could be covered in this article.


[1] See Georgina Firth and Barbara Mauthe: Refugee Law, Gender and the Concept of Personhood. Int J Refugee Law 2013 25: 470-501.

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