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21 September 2001

Refugee women talk
Elizabeth Ferris *

Mary is a widow with seven children, but she doesn't know where two of her children are. She is a refugee from Sierra Leone - a victim of that country's brutal violence. "In 1998, we ran away from our town in Bo," Mary recalls. "A group of rebels caught us and murdered my husband. They made me take off all my clothes and lie on the ground. I was sure they were going to kill me. But one of the rebels was a boy from my village, and he told the others to leave me alone. Later, my son found me. Like many refugees who were running away, he had been wearing all of his clothes, so he was able to give me something to cover myself. We made it to Guinea, where we lived in a refugee camp."

Mary from Sierra Leone, along with 45 other refugee women, has come to Geneva at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the occasion of the first World Refugee Day - 20 June. It is the first time that refugee women - from camps, urban areas and internally displaced persons - have come together on a global level to share their experiences and to chart recommended actions for UNHCR. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is one of only three international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (along with the Women's Commission on Refugee Women and Children, and the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA)) invited to participate in this meeting.

The refugee women are strong and passionate. They seize the opportunity to tell others what is really happening in refugee camps around the world. Unlike other meetings where refugees occasionally participate, most of these women have never travelled out of their country... except to flee across a border. Formal interpretation is offered in four languages and informal interpretation provided in several others to enable the women to talk to each other.

It is an intense and powerful meeting. Afghan, Chechen, Burundian, Colombian and many other women are describing their own lives. Many, like Mary, tell of pain and suffering.

"I lost everything, everything when I had to leave my home - my husband, our business, our home, everything ," Mary laments. "Then on September 9, the president of Guinea told his people to drive the refugees out of the country and the attacks began. Refugees in cities were rounded up, beaten and killed. People attacked the refugee camps. You can't imagine how terrifying it was. We were so scared.

"A few months ago, UNHCR moved us all to another, new, camp further from the border. Most of the refugees had to live in huts with other families. But I wanted to keep my family together. When children are with lots of other people, they can learn bad things.

"Usually it's the man who builds the hut, but my children and I worked very hard to make bricks and build our tiny hut. It's very small and we only have one mat. The dirt floor isn't sanitary and people get sick. We only have one blanket, so my children use one of my dresses for cover at night. I don't know where two of my children are: a 21-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. I don't know where they are, maybe in another camp, maybe back in Sierra Leone. It's so sad. I can't sleep at night worrying about them...

"Our biggest problem right now is food. We get 13.5 kilos of bulgur wheat. That's supposed to last 45 days, but sometimes it doesn't come for 55 or 60 days. Everyone is so hungry. You have to be strong to get your food. If you're not strong, the men and boys will take it from you. We used to grow some vegetables in the other camp, but it will take time to grow things in this new camp. I wish we had rice. The women turn to prostitution when they can't feed their children and when their husbands find out, they beat them. It would work much better if the women had the ration cards. Usually they give them to the men as head of the family. But sometimes the men trade the food for cigarettes or alcohol. Then it's really bad for the family," Mary explains.

Other women tell similar stories of flight, and death, and persecution, and separated families, and lost opportunities. But there are also stories of hope. "In Afghanistan," a refugee woman explains, "there are no institutions which train women teachers, doctors or nurses. Since Afghan women are prohibited from seeing male doctors or being taught by male teachers, this means that in a few years, women and girls will have no access to health care or education. But in the refugee camps, we're training Afghan refugee women. These women are the hope of Afghanistan. We are the future of our country."

Pioneer work
The WCC is participating in this UNHCR meeting in recognition of its leadership role in putting refugee women's issues on the international agenda. In 1988, together with the World YWCA and other NGOs, the WCC organized a first consultation on refugee women. A pioneering initiative, the meeting brought together 150 participants from 40 countries, 35% of whom were refugee women themselves. Many of the recommendations from that conference have been implemented. Policies and guidelines have been developed by UNHCR, training materials developed and staff hired to focus on gender questions.

I remind participants that fifteen years ago no one wanted to hear about refugee women. UNHCR officials and governments looked at us as if we were crazy for suggesting that refugee women had particular needs and resources which must be recognized.

So much has happened since then, I tell them. For example, many government s recognize that women asylum-seekers need to talk to women officials about experiences of sexual assault. Programmes are targeting women for income-generating projects, and gender concerns have become mainstream in many organizations. But as long as women are still raped while searching for firewood and families go hungry because the man with the ration card needs cigarettes, there is much work to be done."

The testimonies at the June 2001 meeting in Geneva confirm that much remains to be done. Women continue to suffer physical violence in flight, in camps and in their families. "Sometimes our men have nothing to do in the camps," one Burundian woman says. "They used to support their families, to protect their families, but now they feel useless. Domestic violence often comes from this change in gender roles." Another woman explains that in Dadaab camp in Kenya, the women must walk long hours in search of firewood and are often assaulted or raped while doing so. "We could buy firewood, if we had some money," she says. "We could start small businesses to make the money, but we have nothing - no capital - to even get started."

Meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, a 17-year old Ethiopian refugee woman reflects the concerns of many when she tells him of the burning need for education for refugees. "Our children need schools," she pleads. "We want a simple straightforward answer from you. We want you to say yes, you will make education available to refugees." In response, the high commissioner picks up the microphone and says simply: "Yes. I will do that. Yes."

Budget cuts
But many UNHCR programmes are threatened by a recent round of budget reductions.

"Our food rations have been cut," a refugee woman from Tanzania sighs. "So have ours," an Afghan woman in Pakistan replies. "And ours too"... "Ours too." The impact of UNHCR's budget reductions is evident in the stories of refugee women from every corner of the globe

When food rations are reduced, people go hungry. When children have nothing to eat, their mothers turn to prostitution. The relationship is clear, straightforward, direct. No money to buy firewood, and women have to walk further to find it. Too often they are assaulted or raped on their way. "We used to get soap," one woman says, "but that's now been cut." "We had hoped to have schools," another says, "but UNHCR doesn't have the money to pay teachers." The stories go on and on.

In the UNHCR corridors, there is talk about which programmes will be affected by the budget reductions, how office X is fighting to have its reductions lessened. "Originally they wanted to cut my office's budget by 40%" one official smiles, "but I managed to hold it to 18%." UNHCR is reportedly providing generous retirement packages to people aged 53 and older to reduce staff costs. It is sad when a person who has worked with UNHCR all his or her life is forced to retire at 53. But it's much sadder when refugee mothers see their children go hungry.

"My son is 10 years old and all he's known is war," an Angolan mother laments. "What kind of childhood is it when all he's known is fighting and running away?" The woman smiles ironically and continues: "Actually I'm 35 years old and all I've known my whole life is war. I'm from Ovambo but came to Luanda, with many other displaced people, because of the war. And everything's so crowded. We have five people in one room. I'm looking after my nieces and nephews like everyone else in the country. My mother died of thrombosis last week. She died because there's no medicine."

There are so many stories of need, of suffering, of pain. It seems incredible that UNHCR's budget is being cut because rich countries don't want to pay, because they're tired of paying for relief to victims of wars that drag on and on. But they couldn't be any more tired of war and suffering than the women at this meeting.

Elizabeth Ferris is programme executive in the WCC International Relations Team.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.