RPN 20 published November 1995

2. The question of gender by Bridget Walker

That the integration of gender considerations is essential to effective and equitable development programmes is now widely recognised. By contrast, the gender debate in response to disaster emergencies has been less developed, and it is in this 'relief mode' that programmes of assistance to refugees have frequently been devised and implemented. In this article, Bridget Walker highlights the importance of considering gender in all stages of working with refugees and draws on Oxfam's experience to suggest some ways in which this may be achieved.

The legal instruments and basic structures to ensure the protection of refugees were established in the early 50s and reflect the views and backgrounds of the men who designed them. Persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality and political opinion was acknowledged from the start; membership of particular social groups was also recognised to give rise to persecution; but the definition did not cover the fact that being a woman might, in itself, sometimes constitute a well founded fear of persecution. It has taken more than 30 years to recognise that gender-related issues may also be a cause for fear and flight. The refugee women from Tigray interviewed by Claudia Garcia1, had come to Sudan to escape not only war but also 'divorce or problems with their husbands', and she highlights the fact that refugee status is more often awarded to men. In general, the gender dimension of displacement and exile has frequently gone unanalysed and the needs of refugee women have been unrecognised and unmet.

The World Refugee Survey of 1981 wrote 'Refugee women and girls constitute the majority of refugee populations around the world. Yet their particular roles, needs and resources have largely gone unnoticed until recently. The priority given to physical survival in most first asylum situations has usually precluded data collection, research or special programming for a segment of the refugee population. And orientation and assistance in resettlement countries have primarily been aimed at developing economic and social survival skills among heads of households, who are often assumed to be men'2.

Ten years later Tina Wallace, writing in Changing Perceptions, has much the same message. 'Until recently the specific problems encountered by refugee women, and the multiplicity of roles they have to play while balancing the competing demands on their time and energy, in situations where they often have no status or support, were largely invisible. Even now, while there is some recognition of the particular needs of refugee women there is very little information and data about them, about their health needs, the productive work they undertake, their experience of stress, and their subjection to many kinds of violence. But at least there is growing awareness that women make up the bulk of the refugee (and displaced) populations and that they have definable needs which arise from their roles and responsibilities as refugee women.'3

The Executive Committee of UNHCR first stressed the need for UNHCR and host governments to give particular attention to the international protection of refugee women in 19854. In 1989 the Committee repeated its concern about the physical safety and sexual exploitation of refugee women and called for a policy framework for mainstreaming women's issues within the organisation. There is now a clear policy, based on the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, and detailed protection guidelines specifically for refugee women; but the gap between policy and practice remains wide. Why is this so and what can agencies working with refugees do to address the situation?

Gender and emergencies

The crisis in developmentalism has led academics and development agencies to reexamine their development models and the assumptions that underlie them. Key to this has been the critical examination of development experience over the past twenty years, informed by insights from political and social analysis and theories of change. Of these, gender analysis has been crucial in demonstrating how, and offering an explanation why, development has failed women, often leaving them worse off than before. Oxfam's Gender Policy, formally adopted in 1993, states that 'Today there is growing awareness of women's absolute and relative poverty and inequality all over the world. In spite of the significant efforts of many national governments and at international level, the situation of women has worsened'. The document goes on to explain the importance of a focus on gender, rather than on women, 'to ensure that changing women's status is the responsibility of both sexes', for development affects men and women differently and has an impact on relations between men and women. Women are poor because their lack of material wealth is compounded by lack of access to power, skills and resources. Fully integrating gender into relief and development programmes should tackle the causes of women's poverty and promote justice to the advantage of women as well as of men.

It is now generally acknowledged that the integration of gender considerations is essential to effective and equitable development programmes. By contrast, the gender debate in response to disaster emergencies has been less developed, and it is in this 'relief mode' that programmes of assistance to refugees have frequently been devised and implemented.

There are a number of factors contributing to the neglect of the gender dimension in emergency and refugee situations: large scale relief programmes have many different actors; there are immediate and pressing needs for water, sanitation, shelter and food and priorities have to be made; relief workers recruited for their technical expertise may be on short-term contracts, so lessons learned in one emergency are less readily passed on in a new set of circumstances to a new group of people responding to the next disaster. Relief programmes designed by outsiders, involving multiple actors who are predominantly male, have often failed to involve refugees in general and the status and capacities of women in particular have often been diminished rather than enhanced by them.

But just as poverty is increasingly a female problem worldwide, so women and children are disproportionately affected at times of crisis. An understanding of gender relations becomes particularly important at these times, for those programmes which do not take gender into account can seriously compromise the long-term future for women. Relief programmes have the potential to reinforce existing patterns of domination, or to provide space in new situations for new opportunities which can be sustained beyond the immediate crisis.

Displacement and exile: the experience of loss

Experience of displacement and exile is an experience of loss that goes to the root of an individual's being not just loss of home and family, devastating as this is, but also loss of any kind of authority or power to control one's destiny.

Asylum seekers are in the hands of the authorities, often dependent on them for the basic necessities of life. Services are 'delivered', refugees themselves are rarely consulted or able to participate in the decisions affecting their lives. And while women may have previously enjoyed less autonomy vis a vis men in the same social group, displacement will almost invariably mean loss of even those areas where, by custom, they have exercised some authority and have held responsibility. Oxfam's staff team in Darfur, commenting on programmes for displaced communities, said that such programmes 'blatantly hand the power over traditional women's affairs to men . . . running food distribution, water programmes, blanket, jerrycan and other distribution . . . reassigning the traditional women's responsibilities of food and shelter provision to men'6.

However, while understanding of the gender roles of the refugee community is vital, it is equally important to recognise the limitations of such roles and not to compound the gender imbalance. Another Oxfam team, discussing distribution mechanisms for displaced people, concluded that nit would be inappropriate to target items on the basis of gender. For example, men would receive fishing equipment since they fish and women only go to fishing camps to prepare food for them'. They therefore decided that it would be more strategic to distribute a single family kit to women, who would thus have some control over resources7.

For many women the home is the place of their traditional authority. The loss of home is serious for every refugee, but women will feel this particularly where they are not at ease in the public domain. Of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan Nancy H Dupree writes 'the overcrowded closely built dwellings afford no private space, inside or out, for women who were accustomed to work and relax in large courtyards or secluded walled orchards. For many this lack of private space produced acute psychological distress far outweighing physical discomforts8.' Women in Zaire have no such tradition of purdah, but Kasaian women forced out of their homes in Shaba felt that the trauma of bereavement was compounded by the lack of private space. They worried, too, about the effect on their adolescent children who had left the cramped accommodation and were eking out a living on the streets9. Refugee women are concerned not only with their own needs and safety but also with the prospects for their children and those for whom they care.

Women and reproductive health

What does the experience of displacement and exile mean for women in that most personal area of their lives their reproductive health? In most cases it means loss of control over their own bodies, often in the most basic ways. Food may be in short supply and this scarcity impacts differentially on women and men. Women are particularly affected by deficiencies in iron, calcium, iodine and vitamin C. Inadequate iron intake can be life threatening for pregnant women. In a refugee camp in Somalia in 1987, 60 women died within seven months from complications during childbirth directly related to anaemia10. Malnourished women who are pregnant or breast-feeding are unable to supply sufficient nutrients to enable their children to survive, and special care is usually taken to meet the needs of these particular 'vulnerable groups'. However, food which satisfies the basic nutritional requirements will not, in itself, solve the problems of malnutrition.

Food may be unfamiliar to refugees and not consistent with dietary practices. It may require preparation demanding much time or scarce fuel resources. The practice in many communities of feeding the men first will mean that women and children suffer when supplies are scarce. Above all, food distribution mechanisms must be equitable. Where food becomes one of the rare available resources there will be competition for access and control of its supply and women will often lose out. A common complaint by women in relief programmes is that they do not know what is going on, and the issue of food entitlement is at the heart of this. In a paper describing discussions with refugee women from Burundi in Tanzania, Sue Emmott, a worker with Oxfam, writes 'few actually know their entitlement . . . it is difficult for them to compete with men at the distribution'. She quotes a woman who complained 'I have no husband so I cannot go for food. Women are not allowed at distribution. The man tells me he will bring to my house, but he brings very small. My children are hungry alwas11'.

The woman quoted above did not know her entitlements and did not feel at ease in the public space of the distribution line. We have seen how the lack of physical space can cause distress. Not only should there be an attempt to provide private space but public space should be safe for women refugees the design of shelter, the siting of water points, the provision of washing and sanitation facilities can all contribute to women's safety and well-being, or increase their vulnerability to abuse.

When refugee women seek treatment and advice they may find that health facilities are over-stretched or inappropriate. Experience has shown that the main users are often men. For example, in 1984 the population of a refugee camp in eastern Sudan was 28,000 persons, of whom 75% were women and children. Of the 26 inpatients at the hospital, all were men. The majority of refugees treated at the outpatient clinic were also men12.

There are many reasons why women do not make use of the facilities available. The location may be difficult or insecure, opening hours may be inconvenient, women may not be able to fit visits into their own timetables which may, for example, be dictated by the time needed to queue for water or rations. There may be a lack of female health workers, and/or language problems, or the health facilities may not offer women what they want. A case study of Rwandan refugees in a report from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children points out that 'Most of the women do not give birth in the camp hospitals . . . we learned that this is because Rwandan women prefer the squatting position, and in the hospital not only must they lie down but their family members are not allowed to be present'13. Women who have suffered abuse may be reticent about seeking treatment and a sympathetic response cannot be guaranteed.

Changing the discourse

The denial of basic rights to many refugee women is surely the key factor which has caused their needs and concerns to remain unrecognised and unmet; but it is precisely this issue of rights which is now being highlighted in the formulation of policy and protection guidelines. At the beginning of this article, the shortcomings of the original legal instruments for the protection of refugee women were referred to. In the section on the Legal Framework in the UNHCR Guidelines, an important link is made between the Refugee Convention and Protocol and other international instruments relating to human rights: the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, the conventions relating to marriage consent, minimum age and registration and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To change the discourse from meeting basic needs to meeting basic rights is a significant step forward in promoting not only the material condition of women, but also enhancing their status.

It is within the framework of these policy guidelines that UNHCR conducts training for those engaged in the planning and implementation of programmes of refugee assistance. The key to more equitable programming must be the refugees' participation in the planning of both their protection and assistance activities. The need for consultation is stressed in UNHCR's Guidelines, in the recommendations of a Field Studies paper of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies14, and in Oxfam's Handbooks15. The question remains of how practicable this is in emergency and disaster situations.

In a discussion paper on gender and emergencies written in 1993, Richard Luff, a Technical Adviser in Oxfam's Public Health team, wrote 'there are several reasons why consultation with the affected community is minimal. The early stages of an emergency are often so hectic that there is not enough time to find or establish community structures to work with/through; an emergency will often traumatise the community to such an extent that the capacity of both individuals and community structures to respond . . . is disrupted [and] this is especially true for refugees; the trend of increasing competitiveness and emphasis on quick performance amongst the NGOs in delivering emergency relief would seem to preclude an approach in which community consultation and involvement plays a role16.'

He proposes a model for a phased emergency response combining the 'hardware' of the technical inputs with the 'software' of the social relations in which these programmes will be embedded. He suggests that 'the key to achieving a [better] gender perspective . . . is to build this into our programmes from the beginning and aim to start a process of community consultation from day one. Project proposals would need to include staff who can work specifically on liaison and consultation with the community . . . the project staff responsible for the software side would be working in parallel with the sectoral specialists, the health teams, engineers etc and linking their work into the physical inputs such as the health and water facilities'. He gives an example of this integrated approach from his experience in Bangladesh in 1992 when, although he personally had few dealings with the refugee community, a network was built into the programme to act as a two-way channel for information flow.


Initiatives such as these on the ground the lobbying of women's networks, the findings of the UN conferences on women, the development of policy guidelines and frameworks for analysis and planning all acknowledge that women's needs and rights are central to both relief and development. Disasters are times of extremes of human experience. They put communities under the microscope and reveal their complexities and their hierarchies of power. Emergency action holds the potential to deepen existing inequalities, or to make positive use of the conditions which have been created for catalytic change. Understanding gender relations is fundamental to effective disaster response: the acid test for evaluating an emergency programme is whether, despite the experience of loss, refugee women nevertheless make gains of power and control over their bodies and their futures.

Bridget Walker is Oxfam UK/Ins Strategic Planning and Evaluation Adviser for Asia and the Middle East. She was formerly an adviser in Oxfam's Gender and Development Unit and edited Oxfam's Focus on Gender book, 'Women and Emergencies'. She has worked on refugee programmes in Africa, and particularly in Sudan.


1.Gacia C, 'Women and health educationn in Knowing women, WUS/Third World First, 1981.

2.Carpenter M, World Refugee Survey, 1981.

3.Wallace T, 'Taking the lion by the whiskers', in Wallace and March (eds) Changing perceptions, Oxfam 1991.

4.UNHCR, Guidelines on the protection of refugee women, Geneva 1991. See also UNHCR Policy on refugee women.

5.Gender and development: Oxfam's policy for its programme, Oxfam, 1993.

6.'Gender issues in emergencies', internal draft, Oxfam, 1993.

7.Duncan, D, 'Tour report, Southern Sudan, November 1993', internal Oxfam paper.

8.Wulf D, Refugee women and reproductive health care: reassessing priorities, Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children/International Rescue Committee, New York, 1994. 9.'Testimonies from Zaire' in Focus on gender, 2:1, Oxfam, February 1994.

10.Murphy, Kling, Berry and Dang, 'Refugee women and health' in Kelley N, Working with refugee women: a practical guide, Geneva, 1989.

11.Emmott S, 'Needs and problems of Burundi refugees in Tanzania: the views of women', internal Oxfam paper, February 1994.

12.Murphy, Kling, Berry and Dang, ibid.

13.Wulf D, ibid.

14.Field studies Paper No 2: Working with women in emergency relief and rehabilitation programmes, IFRC, Geneva, 1991.

15.Oxfam handbook for development and relief. Also, Mears C and Chowdhury S, Health care for refugees and displaced people, Oxfam, 1994.

16.Luff R, Internal Oxfam memorandum 'Developing a gender/community perspective to our work in Emergencies', June 1993.

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October 1996