Reintegrating Refugees and Internally Displaced Women

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

December 12, 2000

I would like to draw attention to four issues of concern in the reintegration process for refugee and internally displaced women.

The first is the continuing disparity in treatment received by returning refugee and internally displaced women. Too often it is assumed that all uprooted women are treated equally in the reintegration process. But the fact of the matter is that internally displaced women generally begin reintegration in an ill-prepared and disadvantaged state. Because there is no international locus of responsibility for the internally displaced, they often do not receive adequate health care, food and shelter, protection, education, training, or income generating programs during their displacement. And during their reintegration, they don’t always receive the seeds, tools and other provisions provided returning refugees. Whether we look at Mozambique, Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Cambodia or other countries, unacceptable discrepancy in treatment can be found. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, for example, writes that “While many in Mozambique say that internally displaced Mozambicans have as much access to assistance and attention as those returning from asylum countries, evidence on the ground shows that this is not always the case.”

In Angola, the International Organization for Migration found that many of the internally displaced, in contrast to returning refugees, were unable to participate fully in the reconstruction of the Angolan economy for lack of land, tools and resources.

A UN report on children in armed conflict found that in Liberia, while refugees received some support from UNHCR and a national Resettlement Commission was responsible for repatriation, “the internally displaced population was mostly left to fend for themselves.”

It’s time to end this inequity in the international system and level the playing field between returning refugees and internally displaced persons, most of whom are women and children. Reintegration must resolve, not encourage, resentments and conflict.

A second area of concern is the lack of security in many areas of resettlement. Reintegration, after all, does not necessarily mean the end of conflict or of serious security problems for women, especially single unaccompanied women and women heads of household. Indeed, societal tensions may actually increase in the post-conflict phase, especially where there is no functioning police or judicial system, where ethnic animosities and unsettled scores persist, where the displaced find their homes, land and personal property taken by others, where women without husbands or brothers find themselves unprotected, where there are limited economic opportunities for women, where landmines jeopardize the lives of women seeking to farm or find firewood and water.

Clearly, more systematic monitoring of return areas is needed by international organizations and NGOs and more advocacy with local authorities to promote security and sustainability in reintegration areas. I was pleased to learn that in Angola, monitoring groups are being proposed at the provincial level, composed of government officials, international organizations, and NGOs, to oversee the reintegration process. This is badly needed in Angola but also in other countries. Stationing international field staff in areas of return and reintegration is another way to increase security in such areas until such time as local authorities can assume this responsibility effectively. In Tajikistan, UNHCR physically accompanied returning internally displaced persons and refugees home, worked with local authorities to increase physical security for them, and assisted them to rebuild and reclaim their homes. In Rwanda, UN human rights field staff and peacekeeping troops monitored conditions in areas of return and sought to contribute to the security of these areas. We need to see more of this worldwide.

Ensuring the right of women to inherit, own or purchase land and property is another way to increase security for returning refugee and internally displaced women. Indeed, restrictions on this right have a particularly adverse affect on uprooted women, many of whom are widows and need to become economically self-reliant on return. Yet in Burundi, women cannot own or inherit land or other property left by their husbands or parents.4 Similarly in Mozambique, the legal framework limits women’s access to land. Even in Rwanda, where the law on property rights has been changed, thanks to the efforts of local and international NGOs and international organizations, customary law still restricts widows from acquiring land. Far greater attention must therefore be paid and pressure exerted by humanitarian and development agencies to achieve reform in this area. Indeed, agencies should make clear that if assistance is expected, steps at the national level have to be taken to promote equal opportunity. Otherwise, women’s security in the reintegration process will be undermined.

A third area of concern is the lack of attention to the psychological needs of displaced women. Displacement, to be sure, can bring with it new opportunities for women to organize and assume new roles. But let us not forget that millions of displaced women have experienced trauma, and many may need psychological help. Some may have been subjected to rape and physical violence. Others may have seen family members tortured and killed. Still others may be experiencing a sharp decline in their social and economic status with the death of their husbands or fathers. And as new breadwinners, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many are exhausted from overwork in trying to support their families.

Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder all have serious impact on the reintegration process. In Afghanistan, the Women’s Commission reports that a local NGO has been finding it impossible to train women to sew because the women were “too nervous.”

In southeast Turkey, there are reports that thousands of resettled Kurdish women are experiencing despair and loneliness, and the suicide rate among these women is twice as high as the rest of the country.

Surely, the time has come to integrate mental health services in a systematic way into the humanitarian assistance programs provided in post-conflict situations. In Bosnia, we have seen progress in this area in response to the highly publicized mass rapes. But in many other parts of the world, mental health services in reintegration situations are also needed but they are treated as a luxury or are developed in a way that is inappropriate to the situation.

Judicial systems that bring to trial those who committed sexual violence against refugee and internally displaced women would also help diminish the mental anguish experienced by some of the women. How should a woman feel if she has been gang raped and those responsible are still at large and possibly in positions of authority in her village and town? While there definitely has been progress in bringing to justice some of the offenders, in particular in the tribunals set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, sexual violence is still too often considered a regrettable but expected part of conflict and displacement and a lesser offense in the hierarchy of crime.

The fourth and final area of concern to which I’d like to draw attention has to do with the extent to which reintegration builds upon the experiences and skills displaced women have gained during their displacement. A Guatemalan Indian refugee woman brought this home to me in Mexico. She was attending a rights training class run by UNHCR. At the end of one session I asked her what she had learned. She replied that when she worked on a “finca” in Guatemala, she had earned less money than men who did the same job. When she returned to Guatemala, she said, she wouldn’t accept that happening again.

But what did happen to her when she returned to Guatemala? According to one of the working papers before this meeting, refugee women with empowerment training in Mexico returned to Guatemala to be relegated once again to a subordinate position. The paper then recommends ways to try to avoid this in future, in particular by involving men in the gender-training programs and introducing gender awareness programs in areas of return.

The continuation of women’s organizations in return areas is yet another way to build upon the rights awareness gained in exile. Too often, the organizations created during displacement disband upon reintegration. USAID is to be commended for supporting the development of women’s groups in post-conflict societies that seek to empower women and ultimately provide entry points for them into the economic, political and social arena.

The continuation of women’s organizations in return areas is yet another way to build upon the rights awareness gained in exile. Too often, the organizations created during displacement disband upon reintegration. USAID is to be commended for supporting the development of women’s groups in post-conflict societies that seek to empower women and ultimately provide entry points for them into the economic, political and social arena.

Affirmative action programs can also transfer newly learned concepts of equal opportunity into areas of resettlement. In Central America, for example, UNHCR succeeded in having gender clauses included in work contracts for particular projects. The clauses provided for equal pay for equal work and stipulated that up to 50 percent of those hired would have to be women. Reportedly tens of thousands of returning refugee and internally displaced women benefited.

Better preparation of refugee and internally displaced women for the economic conditions they will find upon return is also needed. We have all seen the sewing and embroidery circles that bring in little income. What we need to see more of is training in activities that have the potential to increase income upon return, whether carpentry, reforestation or computer skills, and the upgrading of skills in more traditional activities, such as health care and animal husbandry. We also need to see far stronger collaboration between relief and development agencies in areas of return so that projects benefiting women are not isolated ends in themselves but are integrated into overall development plans.

Most critical to self-reliance is access to credit by returning refugee and internally displaced women so that they can start up their own businesses in areas in which they have experience. Very often, these women require such a small amount to start up a business. But credit opportunities for returning women are limited, and in some areas, repayment rates are too high or collateral is required, making it difficult for truly poor women to become part of these programs. Development agencies and the World Bank have made progress in this area but far more investment in the capabilities of returning women is needed as well as aggressive efforts to find returning women jobs.

Finally, and most important are adequate funds for reintegration and development in areas of return. Donors unfortunately are far more ready to provide emergency relief than reintegration and development support because of the uncertainty of the results in the case of development and the uncertainty surrounding the situation in many post conflict countries. Moreover, reintegration support when it is delivered, is provided late, often leaving returnees, whether men or women, stranded and without the wherewithal to sustain themselves in the here and now. To be sure, efforts are being made to bridge the increasingly recognized relief to development gap – the Brookings process being one such effort – and to accelerate the delivery of development support. But windows of opportunity are often missed and the peace process can even be undermined because of the incredible delays and failure to coordinate relief and development work from the beginning. Not only must we work toward the inclusion of women in the reconstruction and development process but we must also promote the timely and adequate provision of funds. The numbers of refugee and internally displaced women seeking to reintegrate are simply too large and their impact on the development process too significant not to address these critical concerns.