As the Global Compact on Refugees takes shape, don’t forget women and girls

Government officials, civil society, academics and refugees gather this week for UNHCR talks in Geneva. With the meeting in mind, CARE’s Jessie Thomson offers three ways to ensure that the needs of women and girls are front and centre.

By: /
December 12, 2017
Rohingya refugees share a light moment as they cook dinner at the Balukhali camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

In 2016, United Nations member states unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. In the declaration, states made a powerful commitment to take action on behalf of and in partnership with refugee women and girls, promising, among other pledges, to combat sexual and gender-based violence, provide access to sexual and reproductive health care services, and ensure women and girls’ “full, equal and meaningful participation in the development of solutions.”

Following this declaration, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been leading the process to develop twin global compacts — one concerning the situation of refugees, the other of migrants. Both are to be adopted in 2019.

Despite repeated commitments to the contrary, the process to date has struggled to put the needs and capacities of displaced women and girls front and centre. It seems they continue to be a second thought, rather than a central part of the discussions.

What is even more discouraging is that the compact process has yet to unblock the specific questions around the need for a global refugee responsibility sharing mechanism. This is particularly relevant to women and girls, as they frequently bear the brunt of this responsibility sharing gap, in the absence of meaningful protection and assistance in countries of origin and safe and legal routes to seek asylum. Permanent and prolonged family separation, serious protection risks faced in transit on dangerous routes and negative coping mechanisms all too often leave women and girls to shoulder the burden of displacement on their own.

Government representatives, civil society, academics and refugees themselves are gathering December 12 and 13 at the UNHCR in Geneva, and will take stock of the process and begin to shape a first draft of the Global Compact on Refugees.

It is critical that participants ensure the specific needs (and potential) of women and girls are not merely referenced in passing, but earn a central focus in this guiding document for displaced people worldwide.

CARE is an experienced international humanitarian agency currently assisting refugees and internally displaced people in nearly all the major crises underway at the moment. Our three recommendations are as follows:

First, we are calling on the UNHCR to release its action plan on the implementation of the Five Commitments to Refugee Women and Girls before the end of the year, as committed at the NGO consultations (an annual event between the UNHCR and non-governmental organizations) in June 2017.  These commitments were launched in 2001, outlining very basic but critical commitments to women and girls. Back then advocates saw this as a positive step; sadly, 16 years later, these commitments have not been fully realized.

Secondly, we are recommending the development of gender-specific indicators to monitor and ensure the involvement of women and girls. Specifically, these should be in the application of Comprehensive Refugee Response Frameworks (CRRF), as outlined in Annex 1 of the New York declaration, as well as gender-specific outcomes to be included in the monitoring and evaluation frameworks, roadmaps and strategic plans for the implementation of the CRRFs globally. To achieve this, there is an urgent need for comprehensive training to enable governments, civil society and UN partners to implement gender-sensitive refugee responses.

Thirdly, we are calling for strong integration of gender in the programme of action that will form the key actionable part of the refugee compact. Gender considerations must be mainstreamed throughout the programme of action, to:

  • include particular references to gender-responsive approaches;
  • emphasize the need for targeted action to meet gender-specific needs and promote meaningful participation and leadership of women and girls;
  • mandate the collection of sex and age disaggregated data by all actors;
  • call for intersectional gender needs and capacity assessments to inform the design and implementation of comprehensive refugee responses;
  • call for the creation of a predictable, equitable and fair responsibility sharing mechanism, with a particular recognition of the specific needs of women and girls;
  • call for the active participation of national and community-based women’s organizations and government ministries particularly focused on women and children in CRRF application processes; and,
  • call for adequate and earmarked resources to be provided to target the specific needs of women and girls, as well as more effective tracking and monitoring systems, potentially including through a gender-marker system.

Now is the time for the international community to truly show it is listening to those voices that have been left silent. Women and girls have specific capabilities and needs, and if we don’t take steps to ensure they are identified and met, too many will be left behind.

The numbers are alarming: 60 percent of preventable maternal deaths take place amidst conflict, displacement and natural disasters. An estimated one in five refugees or displaced women has experienced sexual violence. The actual figure is likely much higher, given that many women do not disclose these experiences. Rape, trafficking, early marriage and other forms of violence against women tend to increase in times of conflict and natural disasters. Girls are more likely to be pulled out of school in crises and less likely to return than boys. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

At the same time, refugee women and girls show remarkable strength and leadership in times of crisis. They are not just survivors, but also community champions, leaders of social movements and the glue that holds families and communities together when conflict forces them to flee.

The time is now for meaningful commitments and measurable action in solidarity with refugee women and girls. Refugee women and girls have waited long enough.