Bhutanese refugee women and girls in Nepal continue to suffer from gender-based violence and discrimination without avenues for adequate redress. Successful prevention efforts must address women’s status in the camps, including discrimination against women in the camp registration system and insufficient training and support for women’s leadership.
The government of Nepal should take immediate steps to reform the camp registration and ration distribution system to remove the existing gender bias. They should amend the camp rules and cooperate with UNHCR to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence. Nepal cannot fulfill its international human rights obligation to punish perpetrators of violence without addressing the shortcomings in its laws. The thirty-five-day statute of limitations for reporting sexual offense cases and the lack of legislation addressing domestic violence tightly restrict survivors’ access to justice. These constraints combined with camp-level initiatives to “reconcile” domestic disputes give abusive men leeway to commit violence with near impunity.
UNHCR’s recent efforts to prevent and respond effectively to gender-based violence, though an important step forward, will fail if UNHCR does not ensure that women have independent access to humanitarian aid and if it does not treat domestic violence with the same seriousness as sexual violence. Despite significant progress in establishing a coordinated response to sexual violence cases, victims of domestic violence confront numerous obstacles that prevent them from obtaining either safety or redress. Ongoing information campaigns and more active outreach and monitoring are necessary for identifying and responding effectively to sexual assault, domestic violence, and trafficking cases.
As the repatriation process gains momentum, Bhutan, Nepal, UNHCR, and international monitors have a responsibility to guarantee that gender-based violence programming is not abandoned, and that refugee women’s rights are fully respected at each step. In order to do so, Nepal should grant Bhutanese refugee women the ability to register their children regardless of the nationality of the father. Nepal and Bhutan should revise the verification and categorization process to meet international standards, and take active measures to promote women’s full participation in the process. Bhutan should ensure women’s human rights during repatriation and reintegration, and should grant full citizenship to all returning refugees.
The discrimination and violence that Bhutanese refugee women in Nepal confront reflect a chronic and widespread problem among displaced populations worldwide. The international community must fulfill its obligation to share responsibility for the protection of refugee women and children. Through financial aid, political pressure, and technical assistance, international donor governments, development institutions, and humanitarian organizations should ensure that guidelines and commitments to protecting refugee women do not just remain on paper, but result in decisive and lasting change.