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Sexual violence against refugees is a global problem. It constitutes a violation of basic human rights, instilling fear in the lives of victims already profoundly affected by their displacement. Refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Somalia and Vietnam have brought with them harrowing stories of abuse and suffering.

How can the international community prevent sexual violence? How should we respond if a woman becomes pregnant as a result of being raped? What should we do if a child has been sexually attacked? There are no simple answers to these questions.

An understanding of the ways in which sexual violence affects victims will assist those working with them to help alleviate their suffering. The UNHCR Guidelines on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence Against Refugees provide a primer on when and how sexual violence can occur in the refugee context and the physical, psychological and social effects it can have on those exposed.

These Guidelines highlight the fact that many, and perhaps most, incidents of sexual violence remain unreported for reasons including shame, social stigma and fear of reprisal or the case going to trial.

The Guidelines address ways to combat the occurrence of sexual violence and how to respond when incidents occur. They emphasize the need for education, training and information campaigns. The Guidelines underline the need for refugees, and in particular refugee women, to receive legal awareness training, leadership and skills training, and education.

I recommend the use of these UNHCR Guidelines on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence Against Refugees to field workers and others who come into contact with refugees. I hope they will serve as a useful guide and lead to a greater understanding of this widespread and very sensitive issue.

Radhika Coomaraswamy

Special Rapporteur on violence against women

Commission on Human Rights

Colombo, 8 March 1995

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