Law and Policy

Created July 2009


Two sets of United Nations guidelines are pertinent to female environmental refugees: the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women.

The United Nations issued the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Guiding Principles) in 1998 in recognition of the extreme vulnerability of the 25 million people who are internally displaced around the world.  The purpose of the Guiding Principles is to protect and assist these internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Guiding Principles are an important framework for the rights of IDPs.

Guiding Principles 4, 7, 18, 19, 20 and 23 grant women equal participation in several aspects of governmental and non-governmental responses to IDPs. Guiding Principle 4 grants special protection to vulnerable groups such as expectant mothers, female heads of household, disabled persons and the elderly. Guiding Principle 7 concerns relocation planning for displaced communities. Guiding Principle 18 covers aid distribution of basic necessities including food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation and medical services; it also denounces discrimination in aid distribution. Guiding Principle 19 concerns gender-appropriate health care and counseling. Guiding Principle 20 is about access to and recognition via legal documents in a person’s own name, instead of through a husband or other male relative. Guiding Principle 23 concerns education. Most importantly, Guiding Principle 11 condemns rape and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV):

     1. Every human being has the right to dignity and physical, mental and moral integrity.

     2. Internally displaced persons, whether or not their liberty has been restricted, shall be protected in particular against:

       (a) Rape, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and other outrages upon personal dignity, such as acts of gender-specific violence, forced prostitution and any form of indecent assault;

       (b) Slavery or any contemporary form of slavery, such as sale into marriage, sexual exploitation, or forced labor of children; and

       (c) Acts of violence intended to spread terror among internally displaced persons.

Threats and incitement to commit any of the foregoing acts shall be prohibited.

The United Nations adopted the Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women (Guidelines) in 1991 in order to identify issues, problems and risks facing refugee women, and to prevent or deter problems.  Like the Guiding Principles, above, these Guidelines are not binding on member states, but they are a part of the larger international framework for protecting refugee women and girls.

Guideline 22 contains two “key issues” checklists for the protection of women during refugee emergency situations and long-term refugee situations. Guideline 26 also contains checklists related to:  refugee population and culture, physical organization and location of camps, social organization, physical safety, access to assistance and services, legal status and access, and durable solutions.

Guidelines 30-43 address problems common to women refugees, such as: physical and sexual assault during flight and repatriation, spouse and child abandonment, military violence and recruitment, sexual exploitation and prostitution, and difficulties in prosecuting offenders. Guidelines 44-52 address possible solutions to these problems, such as camp security, law enforcement, victims' counseling, and the participation of women in these matters. 

Guidelines 77-120 consider camp design and layout, access to food and other distributed items, water and firewood, access to appropriate health care, education and skills training, economic activities, and possible program responses.

In 2009, a new Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted at the International Conference on Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction.  It recommended nine actions which are to be achieved by 2015:

1.      Increase political commitment to gender analysis and gender mainstreaming through enhanced cooperation and collaboration between Ministries responsible for disaster risk reduction, climate change, poverty reduction and gender issues, with the participation of civil society;

2.      Develop and review national policies, relevant laws, strategies, plans, and budgets and take immediate action to mainstream gender into  national development policies, planning and programmes;

3.      Foster the linkage between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation from a gender perspective through policy and administrative measures;

4.      Collect gender-specific data and statistics on impact of disasters, carry out gender-sensitive vulnerability, risk and capacity assessments and develop gender sensitive-indicators to monitor and measure progress;

5.      Increase awareness of the public and media on the gender-sensitive vulnerabilities and capacities in disasters and gender-specific needs and concerns in disaster risk reduction and management;

6.      Support research institutions to study the cost-benefit and efficiency of gender-sensitive policies and programmes in disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and poverty reduction;

7.      Secure the actual application of disaster risk assessments as part of development policy-making and programme formulation to prevent disasters from making the poor even poorer;

8.      Improve  and mainstream a gender perspective and equal participation between men and women in  the coordination of  disaster preparedness,  humanitarian response, and  recovery  through  capacity building and training

9.      Build and enhance the capacities of professional organizations, communities and pertinent national  and local institutions to enable gender mainstreaming into all development sectors.


Compiled from:

Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted 22 April 2009.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 (11 February 1998).

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women (July 1991) (PDF, 56 pages).