Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Help us Celebrate International Women's Day!

A woman and her child rest after
finding safety at a camp in Chad
Today is International Women’s Day. At Australia for UNHCR, International Women’s Day is particularly relevant as statistics show that an overwhelming majority of refugees are women and children. It is therefore necessary to not only spend this time reflecting on the achievements of women around the world, but also to reflect on what else needs to be done to provide refugee women with similar experiences and opportunities to those we may expect here in Australia.

Although this may seem like a somewhat daunting task, there are many things that can be done:

Protection on the ground

·         Support public awareness campaigns such as the global 16 Days of Activism. UNHCR runs many programs aimed at educating refugee communities – men, women and children, aid workers and local authorities – about women’s rights and their need for dignity and respect;
·         Build capacity of local authorities;
·         Support initiatives such as UNHCR’s solar lighting program which give women much greater security by reducing their vulnerability to attack at night in dark refugee camps.


·         Ensure that legal consequences follow from the violence against women;
·         Last week, for example, a Congolese court sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi Mutware and eight of his men to 20 years in prison for the brutal rape of 62 women in the village of Fizi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These convictions marked a breakthrough in a country where armed men have long committed extreme acts of sexual violence with impunity.


·         Provide educational opportunities to girls leads to a host of other positive outcomes – girls who are educated have children later, and fewer children, are more likely to earn a viable income for their families, and less likely to experience domestic violence.

Maternal Health

·         Help fund programs like Australia for UNHCR’s Safe Mother and Baby project in Somalia. Somalis have the worst health outcomes of any population in the world – the result of three decades of conflict.
·         The Maternal Mortality Rate in Somalia is 1,044 per 100,000 live births compared to 8.4 per 100,000 live births in Australia. Put another way a woman in Somalia is 125 times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than a woman in Australia. Australia for UNHCR is finding the only reproductive health program in all of Somalia at Galkayo Medical Centre.
A mother and child receive healthcare
at a clinic in Somalia

We know we cannot always bring about the perfect outcome despite our best efforts, but one of my favourite stories highlights that this doesn’t always matter - it’s the standing together that counts.

Jane Williamson is an Australian human rights lawyer who has been posted with UNHCR in Sudan, Darfur, Myanmar and most recently Bangladesh. I asked Jane what difference she felt she had made given the many challenges humanitarian workers face working in the field. She thought for a moment then told me a story about a woman who had arrived at her camp severely debilitated by fistula – the result of an obstructed birth. A horrible consequence of the condition is acute incontinence which results in many women being considered ‘unclean’ and rejected by their husbands and families.

Like many women in this position Halima was a social outcast and suffered a deep sense of rejection and shame. Jane and the UNHCR team facilitated her transfer to a specialist fistula clinic where she spent the next three months being treated. Unfortunately the doctors were unable to repair the physical damage, but she was taught however how to better care for herself. She was also given psychosocial counselling. Most importantly she had the support of many other women in the hospital going through the same experience – and she realised she was not alone.

Jane delightedly recounted that when Halima returned to the camp she was transformed. She proudly wore a clean white t-shirt emblazoned with the words “End Violence Against Women”. Due to her new confidence and outlook she overcame the prejudice of her fellow refugees to become a respected community leader, speaking up for other women who needed support.

That, for me, says it all about the power of women standing together to support each other no matter how great the challenge.

Today on International Women's Day, we ask our supporters to "Donate Your Facebook Status" to show your support for refugee women. Go to our International Women's Day page on the Australia for UNHCR website and click on the "Share" function to show your support!

Naomi Steer, National Director

Friday, March 4, 2011

Australia for UNHCR supporting International Women's Day

An internally displaced Congolese
mother camps close to the 
military base in Masisi for security
A few months ago I was sitting on the ground in a remote refugee camp, under a shady tree with a group of refugee women who had come together to share their experiences with me. The peace and quiet surrounding us belied the horror stories they recounted. Nearly all had been raped, had suffered mutilation and torture, or been victims of domestic violence. In this one refugee settlement alone it was estimated that more than 50% of the women arriving had been raped.

When one woman calmly told me how she had been raped by several men, left for dead, and then when returned to her family had been “resewn” with thorns to restore her “virginity”, I was overwhelmed.

One woman, seeing the tears in my eyes, took my hand and comforted me, saying “Sister, don’t cry. Don’t be sad. We have all have been raped and it is okay.”

But of course it is not okay. As Australia celebrates our first female Prime Minister, many millions of women still suffer appalling abuses of rights in their everyday lives.

The situation for refugee women is even more precarious. Displacement compounds the many issues women already face such as sexual and gender based violence, poor reproductive health, and limited access to education and income generation.

Australian women still face challenges such as equal pay, affordable childcare, representation on Boards, and – sadly, as I told my refugee friends – sexual and gender based violence here too. (The refugee women were very surprised that domestic violence and sexual assault also happened in Australia. They thought it was something that only happened in their world.)

Burundi is host to around 24,500
refugees, the majority of whom
originate from the DRC
But while we aim for the glass ceiling, I believe we also have a responsibility to reach out and pull up the many women around the world who are still stuck on the dirt floor.

For me this is what International Women’s Day is really all about.

Naomi Steer, National Director

Feel free to visit our website and see how we will be supporting refugee women on March 8th, 2011.