Organization of African Unity Seminar on Enhancing the Participation of Returnees, Refugees and Internally Displaced Women and Children in Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Peace-Building

Reintegration and Development for Internally Displaced Women

It gives me great pleasure to convey my greetings and support for this seminar on enhancing the participation of refugee, returnee and internally displaced women and children in reintegration and development programs. I commend the Organization of African Unity for undertaking this important and timely initiative.

As Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, I pay special attention to the needs of internally displaced women and children in my work. Women and children represent more than half of the world's 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons. Uprooted from their families and communities, they are usually in extremely vulnerable positions. Often thrust into the role of head of household, internally displaced women usually do not have the income-earning capacity to sustain themselves and their children.

Refugee women and children have an organization to turn to, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which has a statutory responsibility to protect them and promote their voluntary return. Increasingly, UNHCR has been monitoring the returns of refugees and providing initial assistance with reintegration. By contrast, internally displaced women and children have no comparable legal or institutional structure to turn to. When their own governments do not have the capacity or are unwilling to assist them, they can expect support only on an ad hoc basis from international humanitarian and development agencies.

Since 1992 when I was appointed Representative of the Secretary-General, I have visited 13 countries, including 5 in Africa, with serious problems of internal displacement. In country after country I have found that internally displaced women and children benefit in only small numbers from education and training. Most internally displaced women do not have the possibility of participating in income-generating activities and employment opportunities. Without such capacity building programs, women and children are not well-prepared for return or reintegration.

It is the objective of this seminar to promote greater inclusion of women and children in reintegration and development programs. It is far more economical to begin such approaches while women and children are still uprooted. Many situations of displacement turn out to be long-term, lasting for more than a decade. During this lengthy waiting period, capacities and skills should be enhanced so that the women become self-reliant and better prepared to meet the many difficulties they will face upon returning home.

In 1998, I presented Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Developed by a team of international legal experts under my direction, they set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments and insurgent groups in dealing with these populations. The principles pay particular attention to the needs of internally displaced women and children, including those of particularly vulnerable categories among them, such as expectant mothers, mothers with young children, female heads of household and unaccompanied minors. They call for the full participation of internally displaced women in the planning and distribution of basic supplies, the full and equal participation of women and girls in educational and training programs, and equal opportunity for women in employment and other economic activities, including during return, resettlement, and reintegration.

While not a binding legal instrument like a treaty, the Guiding Principles are based on human rights and humanitarian law, and they provide guidance to governments and other authorities responsible for or engaged with internally displaced populations. The Commission on Human Rights has taken note of them and of my stated intention to use them in my work. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, composed of the heads of the major relief and development organizations, has called upon its member agencies to share them with their executive boards and staff and to apply them in the field. It is my hope that this normative framework will be widely disseminated and used as an advocacy tool on behalf of uprooted women and children, including during their return and reintegration.

Indeed, an important indicator of the success of reintegration and development programs in post-conflict situations is the extent to which women are integrated in processes of return and reintegration. My reports have pointed out that displaced women ought to be included more regularly in development projects introduced in post-conflict situations. Displaced women in a number of countries have shown themselves adept at working in non-traditional activities such as reforestation and other environmental and reconstruction projects. Designing specific components in these projects for women is one way to promote their participation, for example by providing women with tree seedlings that can be grown at home. Incorporating support services in large-scale projects is another way to increase women's participation, in particular transportation, child care facilities and labor-saving devices. Affirmative action measures in the form of gender clauses have also proved effective. Such clauses stipulate that women workers will receive equal pay with men and that up to 50 per cent of the people involved in the planning and implementation of the projects will be women. UNHCR has successfully introduced gender clauses in quick-impact reintegration projects for returning refugee and displaced women in a number of countries. Further, the introduction of quick-impact projects designed specifically for women could be valuable in enhancing women's employment opportunities. Such projects restore roads, bridges, schools, wells and clinics and also provide training and materials for employment opportunities such as beekeeping, poultry farms, soapmaking, bakeries, fisheries and other small-scale enterprises.

Most important, women should have access to credit to enable them to start up their own businesses. Small loans to buy sewing machines, looms, seeds and transport vehicles can enable women to become self-supporting or at least able to meet the daily subsistence needs of their families. Because gender discrimination often affects women's credit opportunities, international financial institutions and development banks should be encouraged to orient more of their funds to supporting small-scale programs of direct benefit to uprooted women.

Restrictions on women's ability to own, acquire, manage or dispose of property must also be overcome to achieve reintegration. Widowed women are particularly vulnerable since in some countries, they are unable to inherit land or other immovable property from either their husbands or their parents and, unless they have sons, risk losing their property to their deceased husband's relatives. In several countries, I have recommended to governments that they adopt legal measures to address the property and inheritance rights of returning displaced women. This suggestion has been reiterated by the Fourth World Conference on Women as well as by the 1995 Addis Ababa Regional Conference on the Legal Status of Refugee and Internally Displaced Women in Africa.

Finally, reintegration and reconstruction must also mean the restoration of civil society and democratic institutions, including electoral processes, judicial systems to resolve property and land disputes, and due process procedures to safeguard human rights. This is essential for tackling the gender discrimination that underlies women's exclusion from reconstruction and development programs.

This seminar can count on my steadfast support for its efforts to produce an effective plan of action to ensure the inclusion of women and children in reintegration, rehabilitation, reconstruction and peace-building. As long as uprooted women heads of household lack the means of sustaining themselves and their families, as long as children go without education and training, reintegration and development in Africa will be undermined.