RPN 20 published November 1995

The Beijing 'Platform for Action' - implications for refugee women by Alison Farrell

The Beijing 'Platform for Action' was agreed at the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women on 15 September 1995.

Condensed into 365 paragraphs over 175 pages, this document attempts to encompass the experience of women throughout the world whilst also setting an agenda for their equality. Although it emerged from an international consensus the document is not, however, legally binding in international law. In common with the Beijing Declaration, the Platform for Action lacks creativity and ease of comprehension; however, both do signal a shift in how the international community frames its analysis of the world. Beijing represents a definite, if limited, move towards a human rights framework.

'Refugee women, other displaced women who need international protection and internally displaced women' form the focal point of the Beijing Platform for Action under the subsection on 'armed conflict'. This section links peace with development and equality between men and women. It also identifies the human rights abuses that often accompany armed conflict. Among other actions it calls for the ratification of international instruments on the protection of women and children in armed conflicts, and the protection, assistance and training of refugee and displaced women.

Rape as a war crime

One particular gain in the Platform for Action which should have implications for international, national and NGO policy with regard to refugee women is the recognition of rape as a war crime. This came in response to calls by NGOs attending the Conference for recogniton of the need to use gender as a criterion when granting asylum, in considering the specific impact that armed conflict and war have on women. Equal treatment in the granting of asylum The Conference recognised that women often experience difficulty in gaining refugee status when their claims for asylum are based on issues of sexual violence and other gender-related persecution. Under 'actions to be taken', the text stresses that women and men should be treated equally when granting asylum, but it also evokes the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, including persecution involving sexual or other gender-related violence.

Sexual violence and implications on training

The delegates of the Conference have sent a clear message to agencies and host countries regarding issues of violence against women, the use of sexual violence in situations of conflict, and the need to address sexual violence, to ensure bodily integrity of refugee women. This includes the need for the training of personnel working in refugee situations to enable them to provide psychosocial support and related health care services for victims of gender-related violence. When it comes to implementation, the language used in the document may have far-reaching implications as far as its interpretation by UN agencies and national governments is concerned. One of the most hotly debated issues was the terminology to be adopted when referring to refugee and displaced women the question being whether internally displaced women would be given specific mention. As the document stands (the initial, unedited version), the categories given are 'refugee women', 'other displaced women in need of international protection' and 'internally displaced women'.

The question of resources

In a context of falling aid budgets and growing disaffection with the United Nations, the question of funding the implementation of the Platform for Action becomes a major issue. The document calls for a greater sharing of the burden that large populations of refugees, other displaced people and the internally displaced inflict on host countries. The resource agreement, hammered out at the last minute, causes concern on several counts. It acknowledges that new, additional funds are required in order to implement the actions to be taken. It calls for new sources of funding particularly from the private sector but does not identify who or what these institutions might be. Some Northern governments have clearly stated that they understand the new and additional funding to be emanating from private sources. Moreover, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have not been fully drawn into the resourcing equation.

With regard to funding for emergency situations, the Platform calls on the international community and its affiliated organisations to ensure the provision of financial and other resources for emergency relief and other longer term assistance. However the Conference did not set targets for such assistance an overarching omission throughout the Platform for Action.

Outcome of the NGO Forum

The NGO Forum, which preceded the official Conference, saw thousands of women from across the world come together to debate along thematic and regional lines the issues which the Conference would cover. The World Food Programme also held a workshop on women and food aid. The main conclusion reached by the panellists a combination of UN representatives, international NGOs, refugee rights organisations, and Conference participants was the overriding necessity for food aid programmes to include women specifically in the planning and distribution of food aid.

Alison Farrell is a Researcher with the Gender Team of Oxfam's Policy Department.

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October 1996