UN CSW: ending impunity for gender-based crimes against women refugees

The CSW has called on UN member states to "address sexual and gender-based violence as an integral and prioritized part of every humanitarian response". Civil society groups expected more.

Sophie Giscard d'Estaing
31 March 2016

On the fringes of the 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York between March 14 and 24, the question of refugee women and girls’ vulnerability and protection was a major concern. Yet the CSW final conclusions failed to provide strong language on the issue.

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Nidan, stranded in Idomeni transit camp. Photo: Alex Yallop/Médecins Sans Frontières

Official events held by UN member states and parallel civil society meetings repeatedly stressed European states’ failure to protect and meet the needs of refugee women and girls in compliance with international law. The majority of refugees arriving in Europe are male.   But this does not mean aid responses should be one-size-fits-all. “Women and girls being the minority doesn’t make their case better, it makes it worse”, said a male panelist in an event organized by the Council of Europe and Bulgaria. “Discrimination against women happens every day”.

“Sexual violence against refugee women and girls occurs regularly and the violence doesn’t stop at the border”, explained Marcy Hersh, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). “Women refugees feel very unsafe. They refuse to eat and drink because of the fear of using the toilets” where they risk being raped or sexually abused”. Recent reports by Amnesty International, the WRC, the International Rescue Committee and the Nobel Women’s Initiative converge in showing refugee women and girls face sexual and gender-based violence at each stage of their journey and continue to face it when they reach European reception centers. Reports reveal there is near total impunity for gender-based crimes committed against refugee women. Women and girls suffer from unsafe infrastructure and accommodation, limited health and psychological services, and sexual violence committed by smugglers, security guards, policemen and local staff.

Local authorities in Europe “have absolutely no eye for the risks women refugees face. The talk is mainly about food and warm clothes, but nobody thinks about the safety of these women”, said Renate van der Zee, in an article entitled ‘Life as a female refugee: you don’t know who to trust’. Refugee women and girls often hide, ashamed, exposing them to more violence. European states are failing to meet the minimum standards of gender-sensitive emergency response to prevent sexual violence. They have failed to establish reliable procedures to identify and support survivors of gender-based violence. It is difficult to estimate the number of cases of refugee women survivors of sexual violence in Europe, as there are hardly any reporting or justice mechanisms in place. Guidelines for gender-based violence interventions in humanitarian settings exist, but too often they are ignored.

“It is common that in the first six months of a crisis response we don’t speak about women”, Hersh told me.  When I asked the seasoned humanitarian Heidi Lehmann about the European refugee response, she asserted that “there is no real accountability, no one really verifies, and yet some aspects are simple, such as providing sex-separated latrines.” In the wait for these responses from European countries, UNHCR and UNICEF launched a “blue dots initiative” to provide safe spaces, vital needs and counselling for refugee women and children along the most frequented migration routes in Europe.

Trapped at Europe’s borders. Photo: Alex Yallop/Médecins Sans Frontières

 The European refugee crisis reveals the stark contrast between the existing international gender-sensitive protection frameworks and guidelines, such as the Istanbul Convention and CEDAW, European reception directives and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action, and the reality on the ground. If women do not have access to female interpreters, safe rooms and information on their rights and complaints mechanisms, the process is failing them. In addition, civil society at the CSW denounced the insufficient access to sexual and reproductive health care in emergency settings. “We tend to forget that in emergencies, life continues, babies are born, people interact” and gender-based violence occurs, said a representative from ActionAid at the CSW. As Valerie Hudson puts it, “physical safety for women also involves reproductive safety”.

The CSW agreed conclusions reflect the priority themes set for each year. In the context of the unprecedented levels worldwide of displacement in 2015, civil society groups expected that the CSW would make a specific call to ensure that humanitarian culture and structure responds to refugee women and girls needs. And it did, to some extent. The CSW conclusions acknowledged challenges faced by refugee women and girls and the need to protect and empower them in two paragraphs of the preamble which were added right at the end of negotiations. Moreover, in the recommendations, the text calls for the participation of women and girls at all levels of decision-making in national and international emergency response strategies and calls on UN member states to “address sexual and gender-based violence as an integral and prioritized part of every humanitarian response” (Operational paragraph sub.13). However, the issue of access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services is neglected.  And while there is an acknowledgement of the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, more clarity is needed on host country responsibilities to prevent and protect refugee women and girls in the post-flight asylum-seeking period within the host country context, for instance within the European context. When I asked Pierrette Pape, Policy and Campaign Director at the European Women’s Lobby, about this, she said “member states have a due diligence responsibility to protect refugee women and girls”, but “there are issues that member states do not want to address because of geopolitical challenges, which seems to put women’s rights at the second level”.

Yakin Ertürk, who served on the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, argued in 2014 that the implementation of the standard of due diligence was “very selective and incomplete”. “Due diligence obligation of states entails a holistic approach that combines ‘preventing’ along with ‘protection’ and ‘provisions of compensation’ along with ‘punishment’”, she explains. While Europeans members are investing large amounts of funding on border protection, it seems they find it politically inconvenient to address the risks of sexual violence against refugees and the obstacles women and girls face in asylum processes. The CSW conclusions could have ensured a more comprehensive approach to sexual and gender-based violence for refugee women and girls. The term “addressing sexual violence” is too vague. It should get specific about measures for ‘prevention’, ‘protection’, about how exactly to ‘provide health and psychological support’ and how to prevent ‘impunity’. 

Refugees stranded in Idomeni. Photo: Alex Yallop/Médecins Sans Frontières

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said on the adoption of the CSW conclusions “we have the best possibility to leave no one behind”.  Yet refugee women and girls and the many more who are left behind still face extreme security risks.  The CSW should have made a decisive demand for changes in humanitarian crisis responses.  For instance, the Europe-Turkey Refugee deal expects to relocate many refugees from Greece to Turkey. Serious investment has to be made to ensure these countries are able to prevent and respond to cases of sexual violence. The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul should listen to women about the threats they face and the services they need.  They must be involved in shaping responses. Gender-sensitive humanitarian response is not more costly than standard approaches.  It doesn’t slow things down.  It just involves taking women seriously.

This article is part of oD 50.50’s series covering key debates at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women.

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