UN expert panel issues guidelines on rights of women asylum-seekers, refugees

Internally displaced women hold their ration tickets while waiting for a World Food Programme distribution in Mastura, West Darfur, Sudan. Photo: UNHCR/Helen Caux

Internally displaced women hold their ration tickets while waiting for a World Food Programme distribution in Mastura, West Darfur, Sudan. Photo: UNHCR/Helen Caux

Geneva, 6 November 2014 – The United Nations committee tasked with monitoring implementation of the global treaty to end all forms of discrimination against women has published a set of guidelines today to ensure that the challenges faced by women in situations of displacement and statelessness are addressed and their rights enforced.

In a General Recommendation issued today, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women suggests practical measures to improve respect for women’s rights, such as ensuring that women are able to lodge independent asylum applications and be heard separately, even if they are part of a family seeking asylum, and providing victims of trafficking access to procedures on seeking asylum without discrimination.

“Displacement arising from armed conflict, gender-related persecution and other serious human rights violations that affect women compounds existing challenges to the elimination of discrimination against women,” the paper states.

Noting that there are numerous reasons why women are compelled to leave their homes and seek asylum in other countries, General Recommendation No. 32, on the “gender-related dimensions of refugees status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women,” says that in addition to discrimination against women amounting to persecution, women experience violations of their rights throughout the displacement cycle.

In a press release, Dubravka Simonovic, a member of the Committee, said the experiences of displacement, asylum-seeking, integration, return or re-settlement are often rife with violations of an individual’s human rights, particularly for women and girls. This includes asylum procedures that fail to take into account the special situation or needs of women, thus possibly impeding proper determination of their claims.

For example, asylum authorities may interview only the male “head of household,” may not provide same-sex interviewers and interpreters to allow women to present their claims in a safe and gender-sensitive environment, or may interview women asylum seekers in the presence of their husbands or male family members who may in fact be the source of their complaints.

For women fleeing gender-related forms of persecution such as gender-based violence, it is crucial to identify and understand these forms of persecution, the paper notes. In practice, however, these are often assessed through the lens of male experiences, which can result in claims to refugee status not being properly assessed or even to rejection of claims, the Committee said.

“Violence against women…is one of the major forms of persecution experienced by women in the context of refugee status and asylum,” the General Recommendation states. It goes on to note that States who have ratified the Convention have an obligation to “protect women from being exposed to a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of discrimination…, including gender-based violence, irrespective of whether such consequences would take place outside the territorial boundaries of the sending State party.”

The Committee also recommends that States parties fully integrate a gender-sensitive approach in asylum claims, and consider “adding sex and/or gender as well as for reasons of being lesbian, bisexual or transgender, to the list of grounds for refugee status in their national asylum legislation.”

In addition, the Committee notes in the General Recommendation that seemingly neutral nationality requirements – such as economic self-sufficiency or property ownership – can also discriminate against women because women have more difficulty in meeting those requirements.

The Committee, which comprises 23 independent experts on women’s rights from around the world, is mandated to ensure compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) , which was adopted by the UN General Assembly almost 35 years ago and is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Specifically, the Convention defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Committee’s General Recommendations provide authoritative guidance to States on legislative, policy and other appropriate measures to ensure the implementation of their obligations under the Convention.

The recommendations are made by the Committee on any issue affecting women to which it believes the States parties should devote more attention. As of January 2014, the Committee has adopted 30 such recommendations.

Tomorrow, the Committee is scheduled to wrap up its current session, which is being held in Geneva, Switzerland.