Protecting the Rights of Forcibly Displaced Women and Girls

Diane Goodman '83

From the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Nexus.

Marion and Geeta are not the real names of these young women, but their testimonies are true. During the course of my work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over the past ten years, I have had the privilege of working with and for many girls and women like them. Women who have suffered unimaginable loss, brutality and terror, but who nevertheless carry on, rebuilding their lives, and those of their families and communities, with creativity and courage.

War, conflict, persecution and displacement are devastating for individuals, families, communities and countries. However in every country and community where UNHCR works, conflict, violence and displacement has a disproportionately severe impact on women and girls.

During conflict women and girls are targeted because of their sex and their status in society. Sexual and gender-based violence - including rape, forced impregnation, forced abortion, trafficking, sexual slavery, and the intentional spread of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDs - is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary armed conflict.


"I was in class eight when we got married. I had my child and my husband started mistreating me. He had an affair with another girl. I was beaten several times. Sometimes I was beaten so badly I bled. I told the sector head. My husband took a second wife. He said "if you don't allow me to take a second wife, then the ration card is in my name, and I'll take everything."

Geeta, aged 19, Bhutanese refugee woman in Nepal1


Living in overcrowded camps and makeshift settlements, or hidden from view in cities and towns, displaced women and girls struggle to survive. Declining international attention and resources, lack of livelihood opportunities, and restricted access to fundamental rights have also exposed women and girls to a host of increased protection risks. Sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence, and harmful traditional practices such as forced and early marriage, often increase in such circumstances. Lack of, or biases in, judicial systems, or the application of traditional justice mechanisms, leave women and girls with no recourse and result in further stigmatization and discrimination. Women and girls often are forced to exchange sex for food and services in order to support themselves and their families. They are also at risk of abduction and trafficking.

Even when they are able to return home, they face additional hardships. Frequently excluded from the peace process, women and girls suffer continued violence and discrimination in reconstruction and rehabilitation activities.2 Once home, women and girls are especially disadvantaged when it comes to accessing their land and property, attending school, or obtaining health and other essential services.


"My family and I were hiding in a room during an attack when a rebel broke in. My mother was asked to give one of her children up or else the entire family would be killed. My mother gave me up. The rebels took me with them, and on our way to their camp I was raped by seven of them. I was bleeding heavily and unable to walk any further. They threatened to kill me if I did not go with them. I was held by them for one year. I became pregnant and decided to escape. Upon my arrival in Freetown… I was rejected by my community and my family."

Marion, aged 17, Sierra Leonean internally displaced girl3


One of the most important developments in international law in recent years has been the elaboration of enhanced legal standards to promote and protect the rights of women and girls. These include the recognition that women's rights are human rights, that gender equality and the empowerment of women are essential preconditions to development, peace, and security, and that violence against women, whether in private or public life, is a grievous violation of human rights, as well as a serious impediment to the enjoyment of other rights. Rape and other forms of violence against women are now recognized as constituent acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the emergence of a strong legal framework to promote and protect the rights of women and girls is a positive development, what really matters at the end of the day, however, is whether it results in a change in the every day lives of women like Marion and Geeta.

For UNHCR, making a change in the lives of the displaced women and girls - and men and boys - has necessitated a dramatic change in the way we work. It has required that the organization shift from considering displaced persons as passive beneficiaries of our humanitarian assistance to equal partners in protection and solutions. Based on principles of rights, community participation and empowerment, UNHCR is working not only to empower women and girls to access and enjoy their rights, but to more actively engage men and boys in the promotion of gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.

In practical terms, it means not only helping Marion to rebuild her life, but also working with her family and community, so that she and her baby are welcomed and supported by them. It means working to change the violent behaviour of Geeta's husband, while at the same time ensuring that Geeta is safe and secure and has the power to make the choices which she wants for herself and her children. And ultimately, it means working - at the individual, community, national and international levels - to eliminate both the reasons why Marion and Geeta had to flee from their homes in the first place and the violence which they subsequently suffered. While this may seem like a utopian dream, if you had met Marion and Geeta, or any of the millions of displaced women and girls like them, you too would believe that such a dream not only could, but must, become a reality.

1 Human Rights Watch, Trapped by Inequality, Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal, September 2003, p. 33
2 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Integration of the Human rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women, E/CN.4/2003/75 6 January 2003.
3 Respect our Rights: Partnerships for Equality, Report on the Dialogue with Refugee Women, Geneva, 20 - 22 June 2001, p. 17