Press Release

Refugee and Peace-building Efforts Must Address Women’s Needs, Meeting Stresses

15 November 2001
Author: UNFPA

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - Actions to protect women’s rights and meet their specific needs should become a standard part of any international response in wars and post-conflict situations, an expert meeting agreed here today.

The meeting, on “The Impact of Conflict on Women and Girls”, was organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Its nearly 50 participants – from governments, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – drew on a wide variety of experience helping victims of conflicts ranging from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Their three days of discussions led to a set of recommendations to ensure that refugee care and peace-building efforts consistently address reproductive health concerns and gender-based violence.

The findings will contribute to a United Nations study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Girls, called for by United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 of October 2000.

Proposed steps include: routinely implementing established reproductive health service guidelines; training local police and international peacekeepers; regularly collecting gender-specific data; improving coordination among international agencies and NGOs; supporting local women’s NGOs; and making international staff better aware of local traditions, laws and religions, and of their duties in securing women’s rights.

Working groups focused on four topics: the impact of conflict on reproductive health; sexual and gender-based violence; the role of peacekeeping forces; and the role of local NGOs.

Health programmes in refugee and post-conflict situations should always include the Minimum Initial Services Package, a set of objectives and activities for achieving key reproductive health requirements in an emergency, the first group emphasized. (The package was developed by the Inter-Agency Working Group for Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, of which UNFPA is a founding member.) A key feature is the identification of a coordinator for reproductive health activities by different service providers.

UNFPA should provide technical assistance including training programmes highlighting good practices, the group said. The United Nations should convene regular inter-agency reproductive health coordination meetings, monitor service coverage and fill gaps, as well as establish links with peacekeeping forces to ensure the reproductive health of the population. Reproductive health equipment and supplies should be given space on relief convoys.

Another group emphasized that understanding of the causes and consequences of trafficking in women and girls, domestic violence, and sexual assaults and rape in conflict situations is limited, in part due to a lack of data and research. It identified measures to counter such violence and make it easier for victims to report it, including: revision and better enforcement of laws; increased representation of women in security and police forces; and the creation of special police units for gender-based violence.

Young people must be taught how to protect themselves; and education programmes are needed for policy makers, health providers, social workers, police and teachers. Services for victims should include counselling, health care, including reproductive health, and voluntary testing for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“Many of these recommendations are self-evident, but most are not supported in a consistent way by the international community,” said Jeanne Ward of the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium. “Gender concerns are often peripheral to United Nations agencies and international NGOs. They need to be an integral part of their structures.”

International peacekeepers are mostly young men, usually from different cultures than the countries they are sent to, the third working group noted. Their deployment in impoverished, disrupted communities can lead to an increase in commercial sex activities, with both social and health consequences.

Regulations and codes of conduct for soldiers must be strictly enforced, and the host populations must know that lawlessness will not be tolerated and offenders will be punished. Local employment must be in accordance with international labour standards, which will help ensure that abuse does not occur, the group said.

They recommended that United Nations support for peacekeeping should adequately reflect gender concerns, through actions including the appointment of a gender adviser in each operation, training of troops and increased participation of women at all levels of the mission. Medical services for peacekeepers should provide reproductive health counselling and commodities, including male and female condoms.

Examining the past and future roles of local non-governmental organizations, the meeting said that women’s NGOs, with their strong community ties and flexibility, are uniquely positioned to carry forward a more gender-sensitive approach to providing services in conflict and post-conflict situations. The NGOs should be involved at all levels of conflict resolution and community rehabilitation to ensure that the reconstruction process, health and social services are firmly rooted in the needs of women and recognize their position in the community.

The meeting encouraged UNFPA and other organizations to aggressively pursue closer collaboration and provide funding for women’s NGOs working in conflict and post-conflict situations. The operational capacity of NGOs should also be increased by providing and funding training in all aspects of gender-sensitive programme development and deployment under harsh conditions.

“NGOs working in camps and rural areas daily are better equipped to immediately identify groups of women at risk, what sort of risk, and what can be done about it,” said Sippi Azerbaijani-Moghaddam of the Women’s Commission, an international NGO which works with refugees, for example in Afghanistan.

The meeting was organized by the Gender Issues Branch of UNFPA’s Technical Support Division, with the support of its Bratislava Country Technical Services Team, which serves countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Participants came from a number of programme countries and areas, including Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Romania, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as from the United States and Western Europe.

“I hope this meeting will not end with our discussion,” concluded UNFPA’s Deputy Executive Director (Programmes), Kunio Waki, “but will lead to real action and effective operations.”

Added Sahir Abdul-Hadi of the Technical Services Division: “We will make sure these recommendations are incorporated in our programme in Afghanistan.”

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UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided more than $5 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support sustainable development efforts.

Contact Information:

William A. Ryan
Email: ryanw@unfpa.org

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