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Rights and plight of women asylum seekers and refugees brought into stark focus in new UN human rights paper

GENEVA (6 November 2014) – The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on Thursday published a set of practical, authoritative guidelines designed to ensure that the specific challenges faced by women in situations of displacement and statelessness are addressed, and their rights are understood, applied and enforced.

In its General Recommendation, the Committee notes that “there are many reasons why women are compelled to leave their homes and seek asylum in other countries. In addition to aggravated or cumulative forms of discrimination against women amounting to persecution, women experience violations of their rights throughout the displacement cycle.”

“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.

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, and this is particularly the case for women and girls. This includes asylum procedures that do not take into account the special situation or needs of women and which can thus impede 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.

The General Recommendation suggests practical measures to improve respect for women’s rights. For example States should ensure that women are able to lodge independent asylum applications and be heard separately, even if they are part of a family seeking asylum.  The Committee also urges States to recognize that trafficking “is part and parcel of gender-related persecution”. Victims of trafficking should not only know about their right to seek asylum, but have access to these procedures without discrimination.

For women fleeing gender-related forms of persecution such as gender-based violence, it is crucial to identify and understand these forms of persecution. However, in practice, 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 noted.

“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 on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 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.”

Simonovic stressed that “gender-based violence and persecution are recognized as legitimate grounds for international protection in law and in practice.  They may include the threat of female genital mutilation, forced/early marriage, threat of violence and/or so-called ‘honour crimes’, trafficking in women, acid attacks, rape and other forms of sexual assault, serious forms of domestic violence, the imposition of the death penalty or other physical punishments existing in discriminatory justice systems, forced sterilization, or political or religious persecution for holding feminist or other views.”

The Committee recommended 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.”

Nationality is another area in which women often suffer discrimination.

“We know, for example, that women are more likely than men to seek to change their nationality to that of their foreign spouse upon marriage,“ Simonovic said. “This puts them at a greater risk of statelessness if there are gaps in nationality legislation.”

The Committee notes in the General Recommendation that seemingly neutral nationality requirements can also discriminate against women because women have more difficulty in meeting the requirements, for example economic self-sufficiency or property ownership.

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.

To read the General Recommendation in full, please visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CEDAW/Pages/Recommendations.aspx


To arrange an interview with a Committee member, please contact Jakob Schneider +41 (0) 22 917 9301 / jschneider@ohchr.org
For more information and other media requests, please contact: Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9169

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