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


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