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The unequal status of women and girls in society generally increases sharply their vulnerability to gender-based violence during humanitarian crises. All too often, they suffer or must flee the risk of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict. They may also encounter violence while traveling to safety. In refugee camps, disruptions to community support structures, unsafe physical surroundings, separation from families, and patriarchal governing structures often heighten women and children’s vulnerability to gender-based violence.67 Problems with camp location and design may exacerbate these problems. For example, many Burundian refugee women and girls in Tanzania were raped while traveling long distances to collect firewood.68

In protracted refugee situations, additional factors contribute to gender-based violence. Refugees are often frustrated by their long-term refugee status and unemployment. Rates of alcoholism as well as anxiety and depression may be high. Competing international crises and seemingly intractable refugee situations may result in “donor fatigue.” In some cases, as funding and international attention has decreased, the combination of scarce resources and male-dominated camp leadership and distribution structures has exposed refugee women and girls to exploitative situations where they exchanged sexual favors for aid supplies.69 The longer a refugee situation persists, the more entrenched refugee-run management structures may become, and the presence of international NGOs and UNHCR often diminishes. Empowering refugees in camp administration is often a desired and positive outcome, but, in many cases, their governing structures involve harmful traditional practices and conflict-resolution methods that perpetuate gender-based violence. In these situations, victims frequently cannot access support services or seek remedies for violations of their rights.

Sexual exploitation in refugee camps received international attention after the release of a report by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK in 2002 that detailed the widespread practice of refugee children exchanging sex with humanitarian aid workers in order to access food, housing supplies, and other goods in refugee camps in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.70 If appropriate preventive and remedial mechanisms are not in place, refugees may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation by humanitarian aid workers, police, and government officials. Discriminatory practices reducing women’s participation and leadership in refugee settings and women and girls’ unequal social, legal, and economic status place them at particular risk of sexual exploitation.

Guidelines for Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence

The West Africa “sexual exploitation” scandal provided impetus for a re-evaluation of United Nations and NGO employee codes of conduct as well as methodologies for addressing gender-based violence in humanitarian crises. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a body of U.N. agencies and NGO invitees, established a Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises (IASC Task Force) in March 2002.71 The IASC Task Force’s mandate was “to make recommendations to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian personnel and the misuse of humanitarian assistance for sexual purposes.”72 The IASC Task Force identified core principles for a code of conduct for all humanitarian workers in its Plan of Action.73

UNHCR has independently developed a number of guidelines and manuals to ensure the protection of refugees, internally displaced people, and returnees.74 Among the most important guidelines for the protection of refugee women are the 1991 Guidelines for the Protection of Refugee Women and the 2003 Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees, and Internally-Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response.75 UNHCR also integrated the core principles delineated by the IASC Task Force into its own code of conduct.76

UNHCR and its implementing partners use the following definition for gender-based violence:

[G]ender-based violence is violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty—. While women, men, boys and girls can be victims of gender-based violence, women and girls are the main victims.

[Gender-based violence] shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to the following:

a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse of children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation.

b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution.

c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State and institutions, wherever it occurs.77

The 2003 Guidelines outline key risk factors for gender-based violence in refugee situations, such as the collapse of social and family support structures; location in a high crime area; poor design of services and discriminatory social structures in the camp; predominantly male camp leadership, unavailability of food, fuel, and income generation opportunities; lack of police protection and security patrols; lack of UNHCR and NGO presence in the camp; lack of individual registration and identity cards; and hostility of the local population. These factors, in combination with individual vulnerabilities, armed conflict, discriminatory cultural practices, and weak and gender-biased legal systems set the stage for gender-based violence.78

Gender-Based Violence in Nepal’s Refugee Camps

The problem of gender-based violence in the Bhutanese refugee camps punctured the camps’ image as a “model” in late 2002, when UNHCR received reports about sexual exploitation of refugee children and requested its Inspector General’s Office (IGO) to review the allegations and examine the conduct of UNHCR offices in Nepal.79 The results of the investigation team’s findings became public in November 2002, documenting eighteen cases of sexual exploitation, including rape and sexual harassment, of refugee women and children.80 The perpetrators were two Nepalese government officials whose salaries were paid by UNHCR and fifteen refugee men (mostly school teachers) working for NGO implementing partners.81 Refugee girls comprised the vast majority of victims in these cases. In addition to sexual exploitation by refugee aid workers and officials, the team discovered many other cases of gender-based violence within the refugee community, including rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, child marriage, forced marriage, and domestic violence.82

A humanitarian aid worker told Human Rights Watch that the two government officials involved in the sexual exploitation cases were a police officer stationed in one of the camps and an RCU official not stationed in the camps. The police officer encouraged a local man to rape a refugee woman in early 2002, and allegedly received a bribe to rape her himself. He did not rape the woman, but beat her at her home and then again at the police station, where he threatened to charge her with prostitution. The aid worker told Human Rights Watch:

The official, who was in a managerial position, was sexually harassing refugee women in his office—. There was a case of a [repeated] rape of a disabled girl, this was by an aid worker—. There were many cases of teachers being involved with their students. They would impregnate the girls, who were then kicked out of school. Nothing would happen to the teachers, they would continue to teach and went out with other girls.83

A young refugee woman emphasized the impact of the school-based sexual exploitation cases: “In one case a twenty-five-year-old teacher made a fourteen-year-old student pregnant. The community does not like it because then they will feel afraid to send girls to school.”84 In some cases, the camp management committees or the parents of the student and teacher would “settle” the case by encouraging their marriage.

Attention to the sexual exploitation cases illuminated the broader and more pervasive problem of gender-based violence in the camps. The UNHCR investigation team also found that refugee women and girls suffered sexual assault and domestic violence perpetrated by other refugees, local Nepalese residents, and intimate partners. In such cases, refugee women and girls were doubly victimized—first by their assailants, and then by the minimal response by the government of Nepal and UNHCR. They received inadequate and even harmful settlements meted out by the refugee camp management committees. Whether perpetrators were refugee aid workers, other refugees, or members of the local Nepalese community, the victims of gender-based violence had few avenues for redress. Refugees were forced to navigate a bureaucratic and male-dominated camp management system in which they first had to approach the refugee subsector head, who, if unable to resolve a situation, would refer the issue to the sector head, who might then pass the case on to the camp secretary, RCU, or police.85 These two bodies might then refer it to the refugee-run counseling board, a conflict-resolution body that is part of the elected camp management committee. The camp management committee did not regularly refer cases to UNHCR.86

The camp management committees and counseling board did not have the appropriate training, gender-sensitivity, or legal authority to resolve gender-based violence cases. They often responded to domestic violence cases by dismissing women’s complaints and advising them to live happily with their husbands, detaining abusive husbands for one night as punishment, or creating written agreements for the couple to commit to changing their behavior. These methods left refugee women with few options for finding safety and often reinforced cycles of abuse. Deep social stigma inhibited many women from reporting domestic violence, and in the cases where they dared to seek help, the response by the camp management committee could compound the injustices women faced. Radhika S., who along with her co-wife had suffered chronic emotional abuse and threats of murder from her husband, started to live separately from him. She remembers the shame she felt about how her case was handled:

They [the camp management committee and counseling board] assumed our problems were because we were not having sexual relations. They advised my husband to spend fifteen days with each wife. But I didn’t want that, I just wanted him to care for me. They told me if I want a husband, I need to cook food for him. He came to me because he was forced, he was angry, and I wanted a happy atmosphere. We shared a bed but we didn’t have sex. And people laughed at this situation, they laughed at me, saying that I wanted sex.

When the case was taken to the counseling board, they said we have to stay together. I didn’t agree because I knew everything would just repeat. I told my story first, we argued there [in front of the counseling board], and he denied everything. The sector head was there, the subsector head was there, there were lots of people listening. For them it is a comedy.87

A refugee whose case was not lost at the subsector or sector-level and who appeared before the counseling board could expect to tell her story in front of large crowds and to receive little redress. The hearings and final judgments often humiliated and further traumatized victims. The UNHCR investigation team discovered cases where rape victims, including children as young as five years old, were given public apologies and a token compensation of only ten rupees (U.S. $0.13). One aid worker told Human Rights Watch that there were “many cases where young girls were raped and these cases were settled by turning them into early marriages. Parents often felt they had no other option. It was regularized into a social situation. [There were] more than thirty cases where rape victims were forced to marry their assailant.”88

Survivors of gender-based violence were often unable to obtain appropriate medical assistance, legal aid, or counseling services. Staff at the Asian Medical Doctors Association (AMDA) hospital issued a medical certificate citing “internal damage” to a five-year-old girl raped by a seventeen-year-old boy instead of sending her to a government hospital where she could get a legally admissible medical report.89 Refugees and aid workers with inadequate training were often responsible for providing therapy and counseling for victims. In one camp, an aid worker relied upon tranquilizers for treating patients. In other cases, the counseling provided to victims exposed them to danger, as in one woman who was advised to stay with her husband despite severe and repeated physical and sexual violence.90

The Government of Nepal and UNHCR: A Case of Negligence

The government of Nepal and UNHCR did not have adequate complaint mechanisms for reporting gender-based violence, and often failed to provide protection when refugees brought cases to their attention. UNHCR did not implement programs for effective prevention and response despite several indications about the problems confronting women and girls in the camps.

UNHCR had an insufficient presence in the refugee camps and visited them irregularly, contributing to the denial of justice and protection for those who suffered gender-based violence. As one observer noted, UNHCR and implementing partners felt that since “refugees were electing their leaders, they were legitimate leaders to whom responsibility for camp protection and administration of justice could fully be delegated.”91 Refugee camp management committee members did not have appropriate skills for addressing gender-based violence cases. Furthermore, the refugee leadership’s political priorities and male-dominated composition translated into injustices against survivors of gender-based violence. Many refugee women told Human Rights Watch that their abuser’s friendship with their subsector head or sector head prevented them from obtaining help. In one case, a student raped by a refugee aid worker felt she had no options for protection. She and her friends were afraid to report the case because the perpetrator was related to a powerful figure in the camp management committee.92

The absence of response mechanisms obstructed survivors’ access to legal and medical assistance. The Nepalese camp police, whose positions are funded by UNHCR, were often unwilling to record complaints, and some posts did not even have log books. Police sometimes beat alleged perpetrators of violence.93 The police, AMDA, and UNHCR did not have a coordinated referral system to handle gender-based violence cases requiring medical assistance, including access to the AMDA ambulance. One source told Human Rights Watch that refugees had to pay for their travel expenses to the hospital. AMDA had no medical report form for gender-based violence cases, and there were few female health care workers to accompany or provide medical services to victims.94

Although the three Nepal offices of UNHCR received several indications of gender-based violence in the camps for almost two years, they failed to act. In December 2000, OXFAM, which had been working in the camps for several years, conducted a survey of refugee women that suggested alarming levels of domestic violence. The report stated that Bhutanese refugee women “are subject to harassment and abuses by refugee male members and also host communities.” The report noted complaints that Bhutanese refugee women are “sometimes also sexually abused by male staff of service delivery agencies.”95 Several other organizations also warned of gender-based violence in the camps to no avail.96 Even after UNHCR headquarters issued recommendations about the appropriate measures to take regarding sexual and gender-based violence in the wake of the West Africa “sexual exploitation” scandal, the Nepal country offices failed to implement any real reforms.

UNHCR did not take significant action to address gender-based violence on an individual or camp-wide basis even when refugees approached them directly. In a UNHCR-facilitated consultation with refugee representatives and NGOs in July 2001, refugees raised their concerns about girl trafficking, rape, suicide, discrimination, and child marriage. The refugees highlighted alcoholism and its links with quarrels between married couples and the sale of rations, polygamy-related problems, and the widespread occurrence of domestic violence coupled with social sanctions against reporting such cases. They also perceived a rising incidence of rape cases.97 UNHCR also documented individual cases of gender-based violence as early as October 2001 and during the summer of 2002.98

UNHCR did not refer any cases of gender-based violence for legal prosecution, instead relying upon the settlements meted out by the counseling boards. Senior international staff in Nepal were aware that the counseling boards “resolved” some gender-based violence cases by ordering apologies and token compensation but still failed to take action.99 As one source told Human Rights Watch, “Cases came before UNHCR—brought by refugees—all sorts of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] cases, [including] rape of children. The response was not totally absent, but it was inadequate. There was no follow-up with perpetrators, or with victims in terms of psycho-social care, legal help. In many cases, UNHCR did not meet with victims directly. The CMC structures were failing [refugees], for example there were rapists who were repeat offenders.”100

Citing the terms of its agreement with Nepal, UNHCR decided to end or reduce funding in September 2002 for “informal” refugee organizations operating in the camps.101 Three of these organizations had been vocal about gender-based violence and child abuse in the camps. As grassroots networks, the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum (BRWF) and the Children’s Forum often identified and supported women and children survivors of violence. The Children’s Forum monitored the camps for child abuse and forwarded cases to The Lutheran World Federation. If cases reached UNHCR, the staff had no system to forward them to the Bhadrapur office and failed to respond to many cases.102 The third organization, Bhutanese Refugees Aiding Victims of Violence (BRAVVE), provided training in weaving and other income-generating activities to economically and socially marginalized groups like widows, women heads of households, and people with disabilities.

Eliminating funding for these groups would have likely meant that many incidents of violence would remain unreported, limiting survivors’ access to support services and gravely undermining efforts to improve women and children’s status in the camps. In the context of instituting reforms in the camps in late 2002, UNHCR addressed the problem by incorporating BRWF, the Children’s Forum, BRAVVE, and other refugee organizations as “activities” under existing subagreements with organizations like LWF and AMDA.

67 Beth Vann, Gender-Based Violence, Emerging Issues in Programs Serving Displaced Populations (Arlington, VA: Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium, 2002); Jeanne Ward, If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Post-conflict Settings, A Global Overview (New York City: Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium, 2002).

68 Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection, p. 45.

69 UNHCR and Save the Children-UK. Sexual Violence and Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (Geneva/London: UNHCR/SC-UK, 2002).

70 Ibid. Sexual exploitation refers to “any abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes; this includes profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.” Inter-Agency Standing Committee, “Report of the Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises,” June 13, 2002 [online], (retrieved March 18, 2003).

71 The IASC includes several United Nations agencies and voluntary organizations that provide humanitarian assistance. A full list of members and standing invitees can be found at

72 IASC, “Report of the Task Force,” p. 1.

73 IASC Task Force, “Plan of Action,” June 13, 2002, p. 1 [online] (retrieved March 18, 2003). The six core principles are (1) sexual exploitation and abuse are grounds for termination of employment; (2) sexual activity with children is prohibited regardless of age of majority or local age of consent; (3) exchange of money, services or other goods for sex is prohibited; (4) sexual relationships between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries are strongly discouraged as they are based on unequal power dynamics and undermine the integrity of humanitarian aid work; (5) aid workers must report concerns regarding sexual abuse by a fellow worker via established agency mechanisms; and (6) humanitarian workers and agencies are obliged to create and maintain an environment that prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the code of conduct.

74 In 2002, UNHCR and states adopted a joint “Agenda for Protection” after the Global Consultations on International Protection, eighteen months of discussion among governments, NGOs, refugee experts, and UNHCR. The Agenda for Protection is a program of action for improving the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers around the world. Two of its six goals address finding durable solutions for refugees and meeting the protection needs of refugee women and children. Although it is not a legally binding document, the Agenda for Protection carries political weight and reflects a broad consensus on actions that can and should be taken to achieve agreed goals in refugee protection. UNHCR, Agenda for Protection (Geneva: UNHCR, 2003).

75 There are several other UNHCR manuals which address gender-based protection issues, including UNHCR, Handbook for Emergencies (Geneva: UNHCR, 2000); UNHCR, Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care (Geneva: UNHCR, 1994); and UNHCR, Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations: Interagency Field Manual (Geneva: UNHCR, 1999).

76 The UNHCR Code of Conduct may be found in the 2003 Guidelines.

77 UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, p. 11. Emphasis in original.

78 UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, p. 22. For more information on gender-based violence in refugee settings, see Appendix B.

79 The Inspector General’s Office conducts investigations of alleged misconduct by UNHCR staff. The IGO undertook two field investigations to Nepal between October 2002 and January 2003.

80 Binaj Gurubacharya, “U.N. investigates reports of sexual abuse by aid workers in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal,” The Associated Press, November 19, 2002.

81 Ibid. UNHCR, “Information Note,” December 6, 2002.

82 UNHCR, “Information Note,” December 6, 2002. UNHCR, “Information Note,” December 24, 2002. Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

83 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003.

84 Human Rights Watch interview with Sabitra B., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 31, 2003.

85 This bureaucratic process is outlined in the Camp Rules which state, “Any minor dispute among refugees will first be referred to the subsector head, sector head, camp management committee, camp secretary or counseling board in that order. In case of violation of Nepalese law, the case will be referred to the camp supervisor or to the police in-charge.” Refugee Coordination Unit, Government of Nepal, “Camp Rules,” March 1995, no. 13. The camp management committees addressed most cases of gender-based violence even if they violated Nepalese law.

86 Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees in Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Sanischare, Timai, Khudanabari, and Goldhap camps, March and April 2003.

87 Human Rights Watch interview with Radhika S., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

88 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003. UNHCR stated that as of June 30, 2003, there were four reported cases of gender-based violence survivors who had married their assailant. However, they note this does not include cases of child marriage. E-mail message from UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, July 22, 2003.

89 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

90 Ibid. The woman’s husband once fractured her wrist and inserted a bamboo stick into her vagina. UNHCR Nepal staff failed to meet with the victim soon after the occurrence of that round of violence. According to UNHCR, field and protection staff have since met with the woman and are assisting her with splitting her ration card from that of her husband. E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003.

91 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

92 Ibid.

93 Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees in Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Sanischare, Timai, Khudanabari, and Goldhap camps, March and April 2003.

94 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003.

95 Meena Poudel, “Oxfam Bhutan Violence Report,” Oxfam-GB in Nepal, December 2000.

96 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, June 2003. The Center for Victims of Torture discussed these problems in a report in 2002; AMDA, in a reproductive health survey conducted in May 2002 discovered that 83 percent of refugees reported knowing about rape in their communities; and the Community Service Alliance (CASA) performed an evaluation raising concerns about the increasing incidence of child abuse and the disappearance of a child.

97 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid.

101 E-mail message from Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Branch Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, to Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2003. UNHCR’s agreement with the Nepalese government stipulates that UNHCR cannot financially support any organization not registered in Nepal.

102 Human Rights Watch interview with a humanitarian aid worker who wished to remain anonymous, August 2003.

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September 2003