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A displacement camp in Grimali, Central African Republic, for people fleeing violence in the vicinity of Bakala, Ouaka province. Photo taken on January 24, 2017. © 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch

The disproportionate impact of forced migration on women and girls was an important side discussion at the recent African Union (AU) session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The AU has dubbed 2019 the year of “refugees, returnees, and internally displaced persons” – and for good reason.

Sub-Saharan Africa contributes more than 26 percent of the world’s refugee population and is home to more than 14.5 million internally displaced people. These numbers are driven by conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Lake Chad Basin, Somalia, and South Sudan, as well as protracted violence in Burundi, Cameroon, the Sahel, and Sudan. Studies show that women and children often shoulder disproportionate burdens during times of conflict, and many are exploited, raped, and subjected to other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

The Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted in 1969 by the AU’s predecessor, broadly defines those who can enjoy recognition, and benefit from protection as refugees across Africa. The 2012 AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention), provides extensive safeguards for the protection of people displaced within their own country.

Yet African governments have seldom fully enforced these treaties, leaving millions of displaced people across the continent without adequate protection and support.

At the AU meetings, several refugee women and girls recounted heartbreaking stories about enduring horrific conditions of war, inhuman and degrading treatment, early and forced marriage, rape, and statelessness. Many cited armed conflict and entrenched human rights violations as the main reasons they fled and were then stripped of their homes and possessions. They want the AU to hold governments accountable and empower victims to seek justice and redress.

“We are tired of empty promises,” a young activist from South Sudan poignantly said. “We want to see African leaders acting on behalf of their sisters, wives, and daughters.”

The framework that already exists strongly protects refugees and internally displaced persons in Africa. However, it has fallen far short. African governments have lacked the political will to enforce these safeguards and address the root causes of conflict and rights violations that cause people to flee for their lives. The AU should see 2019 as an opportunity to hold its members accountable on behalf of vulnerable people who deserve urgent protection.

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