Overlooked Among 50 Million Displaced Worldwide, Women and Girls Lose Out

A UNAMID officer assists women refugees in Zam Zam camp for IDPs near El Fasher, North Darfur, June 26, 2014. (UN Photo/Albert González Farran)

Mass displacement has become a significant feature of recent conflicts, as the number of people forced to flee their homes has passed 50 million worldwide, a level not seen since World War II. This is one of the reasons why the UN Security Council will focus on women refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) during its annual open debate on women, peace, and security on October 28, according to Elizabeth Cafferty, senior advocacy officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

“In emergencies, we continue to hear the excuse that we can’t stop to think about people’s specific needs, and that usually means women and girls lose out,” Ms. Cafferty said in an interview in New York on October 21. “What might surprise some people is that women and girls still have huge challenges accessing the most basic services: healthcare, schools, making meals for their families at night, finding ways to cook the food that they are given.”

Ms. Cafferty highlighted women’s access to such services and their participation in decision-making processes as key issues for the upcoming debate. She offered examples of initiatives that are delivering positive outcomes for Syrian women refugees in Jordan and explored ways in which the UN’s women, peace, and security frameworks can contribute to a better humanitarian response.

What follows is an edited version of the interview, conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, policy analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Why is the Security Council’s annual debate on women, peace, and security focusing on women refugees and IDPs this year?

I think that no one would [deny] that conflict has always engendered displacement, and the Council has certainly always been apprised of that. But we’ve seen a number of conflicts over the past few years that have created displacement on a mass scale. Certainly, in the case of South Sudan this year, it was incredibly rapid forced displacement.

So displacement, mass displacement, has become much more a feature of conflicts than I think people have seen in recent years. Right now displacement levels are as high as they were in World War II, levels most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. And in terms of women refugees in particular, obviously there’s been a greater focus than last year—people might even say a reinvigoration of the women, peace, and security agenda with the passage of [Resolutions] 2106 and 2122. And we certainly have references in those, particularly 2122, to forced displacement and how that affects women and girls differently.

So I think there’s momentum behind both of those issues. Of course, Argentina holds the presidency of the Security Council, and Ambassador Perceval is particularly committed to and concerned about this issue, so she saw this as her opportunity to create a dialogue at the highest level around this issue.

What are the key issues you hope to see highlighted in the debate?

For the Women’s Refugee Commission, of course, this is our bread and butter. It’s almost hard for us to say what our priorities are, because we find there are so many areas of concern to women and girls. But I think what might surprise some people is that women and girls still have huge challenges accessing the most basic services: healthcare (of course, for women and girls that includes reproductive healthcare), schools, making meals for their families at night, finding ways to cook the food that they are given—the most basic things that we think that refugees might have. Even in South Sudan, [getting] soap, hygiene kits, or a sanitary pad has been extraordinarily difficult, and if you’re a woman who has been displaced for six months, that’s a huge concern.

So, access to services is one, and then on the other side thinking about the full women, peace, and security agenda: participation. With displaced women, we’re most often talking about participation in decision-making processes at the community level and involving them in the design, implementation, and review of the service delivery. Certainly, if you were actually speaking to women and girls and then reflecting their concerns—and also their capacities, because they can become involved in service-delivery—then we would actually be meeting the challenges that I just addressed.

In what areas are international responses to women’s forced displacement falling short?

It’s actually hard to pick good practice. In emergencies, we continue to hear the excuse that we can’t stop to think about people’s specific needs, and that usually means women and girls lose out. Certainly, persons with disabilities lose out as well. So perhaps I’d say the key concern is the continued excuses and lack of a gender lens being put on actions taken by the UN and NGOs, and that goes for everything from how peacekeepers are patrolling to access to services, which I just spoke of. And not taking that little bit of extra time to collect the right data—if you do sex- and age-disaggregated data and put a gender lens on your information, then you’ll be making better decisions.

On the other hand, what are examples of positive outcomes—of top-down programs or women-led initiatives improving the lives of other women refugees?

I think Jordan is a good example. Obviously the Syrian refugee crisis is one that most people are aware of. There’s just over three million people that are refugees right now in neighboring countries, to say nothing of the number that are internally displaced. But Jordan has been very welcoming to refugees; it has provided them with access to services which are available to their own people.

Specifically, there are two different things I can point to, besides the government’s good work here: local women’s groups, feminist groups, and civil society organizations have actually reached out to women and girls in the refugee camps. They have lots of experience providing services to disadvantaged members of their own community and so actually outside the entire UN system they had reached out. And if they couldn’t provide services themselves, they know the referral pathways that are in place for them.

The Women’s Refugee Commission did a report at the beginning of this year, and that was an example that the report highlighted, saying that these activities need to be brought into the refugee response. The UN and NGOs can certainly learn from them and harness their capacity and scale that work.

Another good example, something that the UN is already doing, is UNHCR’s [work] in Jordan, and actually wider than Jordan, for the refugee response. They have created refugee outreach volunteers. These are women and men who themselves are refugees, and they are going door-to-door holding focus groups to determine what it is that women, girls, men, and boys all need. And UNHCR has been very sensitive about training both women and men to go out into homes to find out what’s working, what’s not, what the gaps are that they haven’t thought of, and then informing and improving their programs. They have such a holistic approach that they’ve also—again the Women’s Refugee Commission did research on this—made sure that they are including persons with disabilities in this. So they’re really trying to reach out to the most vulnerable through this work.

Focusing on forced displacement at the open debate indicates that it’s not only a humanitarian issue; it’s a women, peace, and security issue. What can the WPS framework add to the UN’s approach to women and displacement?

UN actors on the ground should be taking great advantage of gender advisers that are deployed to country teams or peacekeeping missions. So we have IASC [Inter-Agency Standing Committee] gender advisers—the “Gen Caps”—and most UN agencies have technical gender advisers that they do deploy on the ground.

So there is technical expertise out there that is not being utilized as much as we would like to see. It would benefit from stronger support from the leadership on the ground, because we know that with the women, peace, and security agenda accountability is a major gap. So people need to be held accountable to the fact that gender equality and the women, peace, and security agenda is a mandate of all UN actors.

But the gender advisers are not the silver bullet either. So while they are there to help and teach by example and help people see how they can do this on a practical level, we all need to become gender experts. Everyone needs to have a heightened awareness that women and girls, men and boys have different needs. And often when you start undertaking a gender analysis, you see that assumptions that you made about what men and boys need are incorrect as well.

So we need greater accountability for implementation of the women, peace, and security agenda on the ground and better use of the gender advisers, better support for them at the highest levels.