(New York) Bhutanese refugee women in Nepal encounter gender-based violence and systematic discrimination in access to aid, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and governments meeting in Geneva next week must take decisive action to eliminate such abuses in refugee settings worldwide.
The 77-page Human Rights Watch report, “Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal,” examines the uneven response of UNHCR and the government of Nepal to rape, domestic violence, sexual and physical assault, and trafficking of girls and women from refugee camps. These problems persist despite reforms UNHCR introduced after internal investigations uncovered “sexual exploitation” of refugee women and girls by aid workers in Nepal and West Africa in 2002.
Human Rights Watch urged UNHCR and governments participating in UNHCR’s Executive Committee (“ExCom”) meetings from September 29 to October 3 to commit themselves to protecting refugee women.
“Refugee women in Nepal are not getting their fair share of aid,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “UNHCR cannot wait any longer to fix policies that put women’s lives at risk. The government of Nepal also has to respond to this urgent problem.”
Human Rights Watch called on governments who contribute a substantial portion of UNHCR’s budget to make sure such changes are adopted. UNHCR and governments should ensure that refugee women receive their own registration documents, and that refugee women experiencing domestic violence can find safety.
Nepal’s system of refugee registration discriminates against women by distributing rations through male heads of household. This policy denies women equal and independent access to food, shelter and supplies, and imposes particular hardship on women trying to escape abusive marriages. Either these women must stay in violent relationships, leave their relationships (and thus relinquish their full share of aid packages), or marry another man, in which case they lose legal custody of their children.
UNHCR has significantly improved reporting systems, staffing levels, legal aid and codes of conduct for aid workers in Nepal, but distressing gaps remain, Human Rights Watch said. Refugee camp management and Nepalese authorities often address domestic violence by promoting “family reconciliation,” and do not adequately address women’s own wishes, safety and access to services. UNHCR has documented 24 suicides in the camps since 2001, four times the suicide rate in the local population. Moreover, 35 refugee women and girls are missing from the camps and may be trafficking victims.
The Human Rights Watch report shows how Nepal’s laws constrain the prosecution of gender-based violence. Specific domestic violence legislation does not exist in Nepal. A 35-day statute of limitations and burdensome medical reporting procedures prevent rape victims from filing complaints with the police and pressing criminal charges. The same obstacles have prevented any prosecution of aid workers and Nepalese government employees accused of “sexual exploitation” in October 2002.
“Women’s legal status in Nepal and their opportunities for redress against violence are abysmal,” said Jefferson. “UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies should advocate for legislative changes in Nepal.”
After reports of “sexual exploitation” by refugee aid workers in 2002, UNHCR removed three international staffers in Nepal on grounds of gross negligence. UNHCR should promote transparency and set a standard of accountability for its staff and partners by providing information on the disciplinary measures it has taken.
UNHCR and donors should also increase pressure on Nepal and Bhutan to resolve their longstanding refugee situation in a manner that is timely and meets international standards. Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been living in seven camps in southeastern Nepal ever since they were arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship and forced to flee Bhutan in the early 1990s. Bhutan and Nepal meet this week in New York to discuss a recent refugee screening that deemed only 2.5% of those considered eligible for repatriation to Bhutan with full citizenship, leaving the rest to an uncertain and potentially stateless future. The process failed to meet international standards, and excluded women from meaningful participation.
Cases of Bhutanese refugee women featured in the report:
(Pseudonyms are used to protect privacy)
Geeta M. told Human Rights Watch that her husband frequently beat her and threatened to deny her food and other rations. “Sometimes I was beaten so badly I bled. My husband took a second wife. I didn’t agree. He said, ‘If you don’t allow me to take a second wife, then the ration card is in my name, and I’ll take everything.’ I have asked my husband for the health card and ration card and they don’t give it to me. I have not gotten approval to get a separate ration card.”
One refugee woman, Durga S., told Human Rights Watch, “My husband is suspicious whenever I talk to anybody else. Since he brought a second wife, I am beaten frequently. On my thighs, there were blue marks. He had beaten me with a belt and with his hands. He has already hit me, why should I show everyone? People will talk badly about us. My husband threatens to kill me and throw me away. He beats me if he thinks I’m reporting it to someone.”