Refugees in Nepal

GENEVA (WOMENSENEWS)–As it holds its major annual meeting with governments here this week, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has the opportunity to help women such as Ganga P., a 25-year-old Bhutanese refugee woman living in refugee camps in Nepal.

Among the “five commitments” that the UnitedNations High Commissioner for Refugees has madeto refugee women is to register womenindividually–and not bundle their identities with their husbands–to better provide them with individual security and access to essential services.

This is crucial for Ganga P., who was brutally beaten by her husband and threatened by him at the point of a knife.

In an interview for Human Rights Watch, she told me, “I was beaten up and requested to stay separately. We have not had a conversation since. My ration card is still with him. I collect my own share of food . . . but there is a misunderstanding (about other supplies). The policy is that we are not allowed to get separate ration cards.”

Ganga P.’s story is not unique. Refugee women around the world are often unable to obtain their fair share of aid because of discriminatory policies put in place by host governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Refugee Conditions Worsen Risks

Refugee women also encounter many obstacles when seeking protection from gender-based violence. Problems such as domestic violence and sexual exploitation by aid workers are often more acute in refugee settings because of disruption to family and community structures, scarce resources, poor security and women’s unequal status.

Nepali-speaking Bhutanese women now living in Nepal are a case in point. Twelve years ago, they, along with other members of Bhutan’s Nepali-speaking minority fled systematic discrimination designed to drive them out of the country. Abuses against women and girls included rape, imprisonment and forced labor. Since then, more than 100,000 have been living in seven refugee camps jointly administered by Nepal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeastern Nepal.

Several cases of sexual exploitation involving refugee aid workers surfaced in Nepal in October 2002. These came to light after investigations of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers in refugee camps in West Africa. A subsequent investigation led to findings indicating negligence by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the government of Nepal in preventing and responding to widespread and long-standing gender-based violence in the camps. Victims encountered inadequate support services and a male-dominated refugee camp leadership that often ignored sexual violence and domestic violence or meted out harmful settlements.

Since October 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made encouraging progress in many areas, including significantly improving reporting systems, increasing staffing levels, pursuing remedies through the Nepalese criminal justice system and establishing a code of conduct for aid workers in Nepal. Despite these changes, some of the most fundamental reforms have yet to be implemented.

As the case of Ganga P. shows, refugee women in Nepal’s camps do not get their own registration documents. Ration distribution remains organized through male heads of household. The result is not only a system discriminatory toward all women, but one that endangers their safety. Married Bhutanese refugee women trying to escape abusive or polygamous marriages cannot obtain their own ration cards even if they separate from their husbands.

Relying on the Mercy of Managers

Most instead made ad-hoc arrangements with the refugee camp management to collect their food rations separately, thus relying on the mercy of the management rather than a system fair to women. These women encountered problems accessing rations meant to be shared within one household such as stoves, blankets and soap. They were unable to obtain separate housing, leaving them to find shelter with other family members in already overcrowded huts or to create makeshift arrangements with partitions. The government of Nepal further discriminates against refugee women by preventing them from registering children not fathered by a refugee.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one refugee woman who was beaten repeatedly by her husband and hospitalized twice. She now lives separately from her husband’s family but cannot get her own ration card. She said, “I had a goat and I sold it to buy materials for a new hut. I have not been given anything (by the camp authorities). When it rains, the whole place gets drenched. I should have all materials for my hut, especially as the rainy season is coming. I want a separate ration card because all of the benefits go to my husband’s family only, like the utensils for filling water and the hut.”

On Sept. 29, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers announced that the commission would begin phasing out aid for the camps in Nepal, leaving Bhutanese refugee women in an even more precarious situation. Any future initiatives to facilitate repatriation, resettlement or local integration of refugees should ensure that refugee women can make their own decisions about their future and not only through the male head of household.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and national governments should demonstrate the political will to realize longstanding promises to refugee women. They should direct technical and financial resources to ensuring that women have independent access to all aid packages and put comprehensive programs fighting all forms of gender-based violence in place. Donors to Nepal and Bhutan should insist the two governments stop dragging their feet and find a just and lasting solution to the plight of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees should not withdraw aid until this solution is realized.

For over a decade, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines, manuals and policy statements have reiterated that refugee women should have their own registration documents. As the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees meets with participating governments this week, it should commit not only to words, but to implementation of those policies.

Nisha Varia is the Asia researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. She recently wrote a report on abuses against Bhutanese refugee women based on research conducted in refugee camps in Nepal earlier this year.

For more information:

Human Rights Watch–Women’s Rights:

Human Rights Watch–Publications
“Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal”:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: