The Struggle of the Refugee/Internally Displaced Girl Child
Friday, June 8, 2007 8:51 AM

In 2007 there are more than 30 million refugees, half of them children, and
an estimated 24.5 million internally displaced persons, 70-80% of them women
and children. For the girl-child, everyday struggles are compounded by
distant bureaucratic process, politics, gender and the short window of
all-important childhood.  For International Refugee Day on June 20, AWID
reflects on the struggle of girls, with a particular emphasis on child

By Rochelle Jones

Refugees, IDPs and protection under the law...

The legal definition of a refugee in Article 1 of the UN Refugee Convention
is a person who: "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social
group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and
is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the
protection of that country" [1]. 

This widely used definition is technically gender blind despite the claims
of women asylum-seekers differing from those of men in many respects. For
example, "women often suffer harms which are either unique to their gender,
such as female genital mutilation or forcible abortion, or which are more
commonly inflicted upon women than men, such as rape or domestic violence.
Second, women's claims differ from those of men in that they may suffer
harms solely or exclusively because they are women, i.e., as a result of
their gender (such as the policies of the Taliban in Afghanistan). And
third, women often suffer harm at the hands of private individuals rather
than governmental actors" [2]. Whilst many countries have now adopted
policies that recognise gender-specific forms of persecution, putting these
policies into practice is not routine, with a wide gap between
gender-specific mandates and human resources allocated to the task.

Women in conflict situations are given specific protection under the United
Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325, but similar to policies
adopted by countries recognising gender-based persecution, visibility and
implementation of UNSC Resolution 1325 is complex, problematic and slow.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the
Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict set out
international standards on the rights of children, but again, state
adherence to the principles and tenets of these instruments is also

IDPs are offered less protection than refugees.  According to a joint
report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian
Refugee Council, "national governments have the primary responsibility for
the security and well-being of all displaced people on their territory, but
often they are unable or unwilling to live up to this obligation as defined
by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the set of relevant
international standards. In the absence of a single agency mandated to help
IDPs, the international community has been trying to work out arrangements
aimed at ensuring a collaborative, inter-agency response to the needs of
the displaced". [3]

The reality for many refugee and internally displaced girls...

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children has found that
"refugee girls are among the most at risk of all uprooted people.  They are
subjected to abduction and rape, forced marriage and slavery, trafficking
and exploitation. Because they are female, they are less likely to learn to
read and write or have opportunities for formal education.  Also, because
they are female, they are often considered the property of their families,
with little or no say in decisions regarding marriage, employment or other
life choices" [4].  At a time in their lives which should be marked by
enormous potential, refugee girls' lives are characterised by poverty,
violence and idleness [5].

In conflict situations and during mass flight, children lose parents,
friends and communities. "Young people are compelled to take on adult
roles, protecting and providing for younger children. Children lose
opportunities to learn, and are denied the structure, stability and
predictability they need to develop their potential. They ultimately lose
their sense of trust and hope for the future" [6]. 

Girls at severe risk are those who are directly drawn into a conflict. In
Africa, for example, up to 100,000 children, some as young as seven, were
estimated to be involved in armed conflict in mid 2004. Children are also
used as soldiers in various Asian countries and in parts of Latin America,
Europe and the Middle East.  Forcible abductions continue to occur in many
countries, but some children voluntarily join armies and militias to escape
poverty and destitution. Many girls have reported enlisting to escape
domestic servitude, violence and sexual abuse [7].

At least 30,000 boys and girls are estimated to be associated with armed
forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) [8], for example, but
the presence of girls in armed groups internationally has been largely
ignored and denied. Refugees International has found that "from Colombia to
Sri Lanka to Kosovo to Sierra Leone, girls have been involved in armed
conflict. Some girls are actively recruited, many are abducted or
conscripted into service, but a few also join voluntarily. The perception
is that girl combatants are just "bush wives" or porters, but their
activities within the armed group go beyond that. Girls often play integral
roles as frontline fighters, commanders, spies, medics and spiritual
leaders. However, when the fighting finally stops, boys enter
demobilization camps for rehabilitation and reintegration into society and
the girls are often forgotten" [9].

Further, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (the Coalition)
has found that "despite growing recognition of girls' involvement in armed
conflict, girls are often deliberately or inadvertently excluded from
Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programs" [10]. Such
programs provide rehabilitation pathways for child soldiers to resume life
back in their communities, and when girls are overlooked in this process,
they often find their way into the commercial sex trade because of a lack
of skills and education, as well as stigmatisation by their home

A recent report by the Coalition, surveying DDR programs in West Africa
found that DDR frameworks for girls were lacking, and that many girls were
left out of official programs. This was due to the application of different
definitions of child soldiers which did not include girls who are recruited
for sexual purposes and forced marriage [11].

Abuses against refugee and internally displaced girls continue to be
perpetrated with impunity. Whilst the UN and NGOs try to address the issues
that girls are facing, lessons are still to be learned from Liberia and
Sierra Leone with regards to child soldiers and DDR programs targeting
girls. Emerging refugee and displacement crises in Iraq will further
challenge the resources that are currently available.

On International Refugee Day, it is important to highlight the challenges
facing the marginalised, but also to draw attention to the need for
conflict prevention and resolution. As refugee and IDP numbers increase
worldwide, proactive strategies to address conflict before it escalates
should be increasing concurrently. Progressively, women are playing an
important role in this process, as lessons from previous conflicts have
revealed that women's activism on the ground in conflict situations is
active and effective.  International intervention strategies, however, are
still a long way from effectively engaging and collaborating with these
grass roots women's movements. If the rising tide of refugees is to be
tempered, however, women are the key actors to achieve it.

[1] The 1951 Refugee Convention: Questions and Answers. United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees.
[2] Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, University of California
Hastings College of the Law.
[3] Report available to download from$file/Global_Overview_2006.pdf

[4] Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.
[5] Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 2007. Untapped
Potential: Displaced Youth.
[6] The International Rescue Committee.

[8] Refugees International
[9] Ibid.
[11] Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, November 2006. Note that
the Cape Town Principles define a "child soldier" as "any person under 18
years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or
armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters,
messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family
members. It includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced
marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or
has carried arms."

Published in: The Struggle of the Refugee/Internally Displaced Girl Child, Rochelle Jones, Resource Net, The Association for Women's Rights in Development, 8 June 2007.