Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1

Women Refugees in a Conflict Situation: A Transnational Perspective

Bharti Chhibber

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 1) defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”  This convention is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.

   United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is the international organisation whose function it is to assist and protect refugees throughout the world. Thus as pointed out by the UNHCR the most important points of the refugee definition are:

       l   Refugees have to be outside their country of origin;

       l  The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution;

       l  The fear of persecution has to be well-founded;

       l  The persecution has to result from one or more of the 5

           grounds listed in the definition, that is race, religion, nationality,  

           membership of a particular social group, or political opinion;

       l  They have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of

           their country

     This shows the limited nature of who can be called a refugee covering only people who have fled their homeland and sought sanctuary in a second country. However, there are millions of people in similar conditions who require assistance but do not fit into the legal definition of refugees. Of late, UNHCR has provided assistance to some of these groups, including asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees and those in need of temporary or humanitarian protection.  The paper for the sake of deeper analytical study deals with women refugees due to a war between two states or a civil war between two groups where women take refuge in another state — without confining to India specific cases as this is an ongoing international problem.

      According to UNHCR women represent 51 per cent of populations in refugee camps, worldwide. There are approximately 50 million uprooted people around the world who have sought safety in another country and people displaced within their own country. Between 75 and 80 per cent of them are women and children. The majority of people flee their homes because of war. In recent decades proportion of civilian war victims has increased from five per cent to over 90 per cent of casualties. Eighty per cent of casualties by small arms are women and children, who far outnumber military casualties.

    It is always the women refugees who suffer more on account of unemployment, food insecurity as well as a threat to their physical wellbeing. Gender inequality in a patriarchal society exacerbates the situation. In the economic realm a refugee crisis may lead to further marginalization and impoverishment of women through loss of traditional sources of income. Hence combating it also requires addressing the gender inequality that is at its root. 

    Women’s Refugee Commission calls for livelihood for displaced women and youth that recognize their skills, experience and capacity and which are targeted towards local markets, are comprehensive in approach, and promote self-reliance that is both dignified and sustainable. With refugees displaced for longer periods than ever before, the ways in which refugees—particularly women can earn a living and sustain themselves and their families must be addressed systematically.1 Livelihoods are vital for the social, emotional and economic wellbeing of displaced persons and are a key way to increase the safety of displaced women.

Select Women Refugee Cases

I shall substantiate my arguments through some case studies

          l   Females are subject to widespread sexual abuse. In Bosnia and Rwanda rape became a deliberate aim of war. A large majority of female survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide were assaulted. More than 300,000 youngsters, many of them female refugees, are currently serving as child soldiers around the world.2 Moreover, these women also suffer psychological anxieties caused by their status and hard lives. Being a refugee they have to deal with a difficult social environment.

          l   As United Nations Economic Commission for Europe points out in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, a large number of women and men have been forced out of their homes as a consequence of war and ethnic conflicts. Women refugees are particularly vulnerable as they have specific needs that include reproductive health services and protection from violence. Refugee women and girls are increasingly vulnerable to physical, sexual and psychological violence. Research has suggested that refugee men tend to resort to violence due to their perceived loss of purpose and erosion of traditional role on which their masculine identity is largely based. Moreover as men refugees are more likely to be approached to represent the refugee population in decision-making and reconstruction efforts, it results in lack of integration of women’s interests and concerns in protection programmes.

          l   Similarly in Cairo, Egypt some 3,400 Sudanese refugee women were struggling to sustain a basic living. The UN refugee agency deals with around 11,000 refugees in Egypt, 92 per cent of whom are from Sudan. It takes time for UNHCR to determine the status of refugee people. In some of the cases, resettlement to the United States, Canada, Australia or any other destination takes around two years. In general, resettlement to the west has become a longer process after the September 11 terror attacks on the United States.  In many cases refugee women worked as domestic help in the houses of middle- and upper-class Egyptians to at least survive economically. There were some efforts to help women refugees like the Sacred Heart Church in Sakakini, east of Cairo, undertook a refugee women’s training centre within its Adult Literacy Programme.  It was important that these women could adapt themselves to a new environment and improve their living conditions. So a formal education and training programme was organised which included sewing, beauty, English and Arabic classes, plus courses on primary health and computer skills. These classes also provided these women an opportunity to bond with other women facing similar crises. Further the training centre agreed to recruit two baby-sitters to take care of small children while their mothers attended classes. This was crucial for widows and single mothers who live alone with their children without the support of husbands or extended families.3

          l   With regard to refugees in Kenya, in line with the recommendations of the surveys on the vulnerability of refugee women in Kenya by UNHCR, in 2006 several initiatives and actions were undertaken to respond to the needs of the vulnerable category. Vulnerable women were identified in Nairobi such as Ethiopian refugee women who experienced sexual and gender based violence in the country of origin as a result of arrest and detention, and who faced similar risks in the country of asylum. In response to their immediate needs UNHCR offered medical assistance and psycho-social counselling.

          l   Closer home we have the Bhutanese Women and Youth Empowerment Project (BWYEP) formed in 2001 which works with Bhutanese refugees in UNHCR refugee camps along the Nepal-India border. These refugees are Lhotsampas, who are ethnically Nepali and have been subjected to violence and discrimination. The influx of refugees began in the early 1990s when a large part of Bhutan’s population was evicted from the country. This followed the government of Bhutan’s implementation of its ‘Bhutanisation’ programme that led to the marginalization of the Lhotsampas. To empower refugee women BWYEP combines micro-credit program with intensive training and follow up. Their approach is to study the temperament and psychological characteristics of beneficiaries and come up with programmes that suit individual needs. 4

          l   Indian state of Tamil Nadu has been witnessing huge influx of Tamil refugees from across the Palk Straits following the civil war in Sri Lanka. Mandapam refugee camp on the mainland in Tamil Nadu is situated 600 km south of capital Chennai, and has recorded the entry of 21,251 refugees since 2006. Most of these refugees reach India without any money on them. Several factors forced these Tamils to flee their homeland including displacement caused by fighting. Moreover fear of being killed in the civil war and forcible abduction of their children by the LTTE added to the problem.

                In order to make it to India refugees have to give a good amount to boatmen who may land them safely on the Tamil Nadu coast, or dump them on sandbanks from where they get picked up by the Indian Navy or Coast Guard. From there after a routine registration and security check they get assigned to any of the 117 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.

                As Tamil Nadu is geographically contiguous it shares ethnic affinity and boats are easily available, refugees from Lanka find India accessible. Centre and State governments have also recognized the need to provide asylum to them.  The Government provides free housing, free medical care and free education, and supply of essential commodities like rice, kerosene and sugar at subsidized rates. In 2007 the State Government announced a Maternity Assistance Scheme for the women refugees, whereby cash assistance of Rs 6,000 would be given to pregnant women from below poverty line families to compensate for loss of wages, for nutritional supplementation and to avoid low birth weight in babies.5 

                Recently it has been reported that Sri Lankan refugees living in three camps in Krishnagiri district want jobs to lead a life with self-respect as the monthly stipend and ration food given to them are meagre. There are over 1,000 refugees in the camps in Pambar dam near Uthangarai, Kelevarapalli near Hosur and Pochampalli. There were 15 women Self-Help Groups in the Pambar camp. They were involved in processing papaya fruit. But they could not continue their business because of lack of financial help from the government and banks. Many families are forced to take loan from local lenders at exorbitant rate of interest. The refugees have requested for employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Many youths in these camps are working as daily wage earners. Those who owned two-wheelers could not get driving licences as their refugee status denied that facility.6 

          l   In another refugee crisis, 1971 witnessed worst human influx from Bangladesh to neighboring India. The governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. As the massacres in East Pakistan escalated an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India causing financial hardship and instability in the country. They took shelter in 829 refugee camps. To escape mass killing, rape and destruction, men, women and children faced many odds to take shelter in India. This massive influx put a huge burden on Indian economy and took India few months to give refugees logistic support in makeshift refugee camps. In eastern province of Tripura, refugees outnumbered local inhabitants. As reported during the initial period, some refugees had to take shelter in subhuman conditions. The issue of returnee refugees in Bangladesh is linked to their proper rehabilitation. In many cases settlers have been settled on land once belonging to the returnee refugees. It has been argued that Chakma refugee women were most reluctant to go back, for security reasons. Since their return, there have been several cases of violence, ranging from harassment to murder, due to disputes with settlers over land.7 The issue of repatriation of Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan refugees is not only a bone of contention between countries concerned but is also creating friction among local inhabitants.

Gender-based Violence against Refugees : Guidelines for Protection

      In 1991, the UNHCR adopted Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women. These landmark guidelines confirmed the need to address gender-based persecution and the need for states to recognise claims for asylum and refugee status by women fleeing such persecution. It is recommended that evaluators be trained to respond sensitively to the particular problems and requirements of refugee women when conducting interviews and determining refugee status eligibility.

     On the same lines at the national level in 1993, Canada enacted its own set of comprehensive guidelines for determining the validity of asylum claims by refugee women. The Canada Guidelines on Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-related Persecution offer a range of recommendations for effectively evaluating such claims. These guidelines call for sensitive handling of difficulties women face in the asylum and refuge adjudication process. The Canada guidelines are the result of some practical experience and in the following years have also led to positive decisions in which women’s claims of gender-based persecution have been recognised. 

      2003 UNHCR report points out that refugees and internally displaced people, who do not enjoy the protection of their own governments, are among those most vulnerable to acts of violence, including gender-based violence. It comes in the category of human rights violation. These Guidelines offer practical advice on strategies and activities aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.8 

     The report clearly mentions that sexual and gender-based violence against women refugees continues unabated. It has been aggravated by unequal gender relations. At times it has been used as a weapon of war and as a means of exercising power. Violent activities are both a cause of forced displacement and a terrible consequence of the breakdown of family and community structures that follows displacement. In order to prevent and deal with the issue the Guidelines call for strategic partnerships  between men and women, national and international human rights NGOs, UNHCR, other UN agencies and States to bring about a lasting change. It also emphasised the importance of involving the women refugees in planning, implementing and evaluating activities designed to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

     UNHCR has committed to implementing five key points to advance the rights of refugee women, mainstream gender equality, and help prevent and ensure compassionate responses to sexual and gender-based violence.

        Ø     Develop integrated country level strategies to address sexual violence, including domestic violence, against refugee women. 

        Ø     Register refugee women individually and provide them with relevant documentation to ensure their individual security, freedom of movement and access to essential services. Refugee women and men are to participate equally in the registration process.

        Ø     Ensure that 50 per cent of representatives in all management committees and other bodies representing refugees to UNHCR in urban, rural and camp settings are women.

        Ø     Ensure refugee women’s direct and indirect participation in the management of food and non-food items distribution so that these goods are directly controlled by adult female household members.

        Ø     The provision of sanitary materials to all women and girls of  concern to UNHCR should become a standard practice in UNHCR’s assistance programmes.

The strategy adopted includes development of information, education, and communication campaigns. It calls for conducting awareness campaigns to promote changes in the community attitudes, knowledge, and behaviour on topics like gender, human rights including women and children’s rights, gender-based violence, and support services available for survivors and how to access them. Moreover, a real gender balance in the community’s leadership structure will ensure that both women and men enjoy equal access to and control of resources and benefits. Further activities that promote independence and economic self-reliance of women and enhance their leadership abilities should be introduced. These may include literacy programmes, vocational training, developing income generating and micro-credit projects, a gender balanced approach when providing employment opportunities to refugees, providing equal access to education for refugee girls and supporting women’s groups and associations. Here it is also vital to involve men. Men must take a decisive stand against sexual and gender-based violence before real progress can be made on the issue. It must be clear that perpetrators of such crimes will be punished, which in turn, will adversely impact their families and their communities.

Resettlement of Women Refugees

     UNHCR has clear resettlement criteria which form the basis for the identification of refugees in need of resettlement and the pursuance of resettlement as the appropriate solution. It also provides guidance on specific procedural aspects relating to particular categories of vulnerable refugees and the resettlement process. UNHCR resettlement activities constitute a means of providing international protection and appropriate durable solutions to refugees. The absence of another durable solution is also relevant for determining whether resettlement should be pursued. While it is UNHCR’s obligation to ensure the protection of refugees, where necessary by promoting their resettlement, unlike voluntary repatriation or seeking asylum, resettlement is not a right of the individual.

    According to the UNHCR among cases to be promoted for resettlement, priority attention should be given to those refugees with acute legal and physical protection needs and, in particular to the most vulnerable such as women-at-risk. Resettlement may offer the only means to preserve human rights and to guarantee protection when refugees are faced with threats which seriously jeopardize their continued stay in a country of refuge. It is the responsibility of any country to provide protection to and ensure the safety of refugees on its territory or at its borders. It is UNHCR’s responsibility to intervene with the authorities of the country of refuge to ensure that such protection is provided.

   Refugee women may face unique or gender-related forms of persecution or violence. Hence they need to be safeguarded against arbitrary arrest or other forms of human rights violations. They also require a legal status that accords adequate social and economic rights and access to such basic necessities as food, shelter and clothing. This is one of the reasons why certain countries introduced special resettlement quotas and/or programmes for refugee women. Women refugees may be more vulnerable than other refugees, finding themselves uprooted and separated from their family members or traditional support mechanisms, or isolated from their communities. They may be at risk of or have suffered from a wide range of protection problems, including physical abuse, intimidation, torture, particular economic hardship, marginalization or community hostility. This may necessitate a specific response. The Women-at-Risk resettlement criterion is one of these responses. It calls for providing international protection and assistance through resettlement.

Women Refugees as a Catalyst of Social Change

     However, we also have instances where refugee women have acted as a catalyst of change. The recent history of Guatemala demonstrates how social change and democratization can be achieved through action within civil society.  Women’s organisations which had become active during the long period of civil war played an important role in the peace negotiations and in the implementation of the Peace Accords that ended armed conflict between the government, army and the guerrilla forces.

      The 1980s was a landmark decade as women took a leadership role in the politics of the country and formed their own organizations.  As Clara Jimeno argued, women were the first to rise during the armed repression of the 1980s and to demand an end to violence and respect for human rights, nationally and internationally.  Women’s organisations began to spread in different sectors in the urban and the rural areas and in internal refugee camps (Communities of Populations in Resistance – CPRs), as well as in refugee camps in Mexico. Also women in exile, who were mainly marginalised illiterate indigenous peasants, began to organize. The political development of women in exile led them to important positions in the Permanent Commissions of Guatemalan Refugees. These Commissions negotiated and organised their return from Mexico. As a result, refugee, camp-based organisations were formed in Mexico and were brought back to the country. Two examples were Mama Maquin and Ixmucane.  Other organisations included dispersed refugee women in Mexico, for instance, Ixchel Flower of Hope and internal refugee women’s organisations such as the Organisation of Women in Resistance from Ixcan. These groups played an active role in the General Assembly of the Communities of Population in Resistance, which negotiated the reintegration of the internal refugees into civilian life9 


     As mentioned at the outset this paper looked at women refugees due to war between two states, civil war or a war-like situation. We have more or less followed UNHCR concept of refugees who are outside their country as they fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group or political opinion and are unwilling to seek protection of their state.

      Women represent more than half of the refugee population in camps.  We cannot confine ourselves to a particular region as problems of women refugees are world over whether in the so-called developed north or the developing south, women refugees have to face similar issues. As we have seen in the case studies from Bosnia-Rwanda, Eastern and Central Europe, Egypt, Kenya, Bhutan-Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, women have to bear the brunt of being uprooted from their homes all the more.  Not only do they have to deal with a social environment of refugees but they also are under constant fear of being assaulted both physically and psychologically. This is violation of their basic human rights. Women further have special needs like reproductive health services which need attention.  Trafficking in women refugees is another issue to be dealt with. More effort is needed to handle the issue of women refugees with due diligence. Cooperation and coordination between states involved, UNHCR and NGOs is vital so that women refugees have access to essential services and live a dignified life. It is also imperative to conduct some awareness campaigns to bring about a change in the mindset of people against gender-based violence, women’s human rights and equal access to resources. 

     Thus, the worst casualties of war are women, particularly those who have children. There is need to equip refugee women with knowledge and skills that not only empower them economically and provide food security but also protect them from physical abuses to some extent. It is of utmost importance that refugee women in camps be provided with continued capacity building. It will go a long way in psychosocial rehabilitation and protection of refugee women. It further requires urgent upgradation of monitoring capacity to keep the young women away from exploitation. Here we not only need effective policing but also awareness campaigns.

      In the final, women fleeing gender-based persecution are entitled to the full protection of international refugee and asylum laws. Issues of women refugee involves question of women’s education, food security, shelter, violence against women, her legal rights and economic and political opportunities available to her. UNHCR and other international NGOs working in the direction of providing assistance to women refugees have been doing a commendable work in actualizing equal social, economic and political rights of women. But still a lot more needs to be done in this direction. However, most of the NGOs working in helping women refugees have to depend on small funds. They face the challenge of raising more resources by expanding their sources of funding. There is need for systematic corrections rather than limiting success to individual cases which are very important but not enough. Literacy, health and other necessities are woman basic rights and give her a chance to improve her position in an alien environment which she has to face as a refugee by changing her economic and social status.


   1.  Women’s Refugee Commission, http://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/livelihoods

   2.  UNHCR, Refugees Magazine, “Women – Seeking a Better Deal” April 2002

   3.  UNHCR, Refugees Magazine, Hanzada Fikry, “Women refugees in Cairo: In a Class of their Own”  April 2003

   4.  AWID, Interview with Dr D.N.S. Dhakal of BWYEP, 2005 http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Addressing-the-plight-of-young-


   5.  “Maternity assistance for Sri Lankan refugees too” The Hindu, 24 April 2007

   6.  R. Arivanantham, “We want jobs: Lankan refugees”, The Hindu, 26 July 2009

   7.  Amena Mohsin, The Chittagong hill tracts, Bangladesh: on the difficult road to peace. Colorado:  Lynne Rienner, 2003

   8. UNHCR Report, “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees, and Internally Displaced People: Guidelines for Prevention and Response” 2003

  9.   Clara Jimeno, “Implementation of the Gender Demands Included in the Guatemala Peace Accords: Lessons Learned” in Sheila Rowbatham and

        Stephanie Linkogle eds. Women Resist Globalization: Mobilizing for Livelihood and Rights. London: Zed Books, 2001.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati