Together, women and children constitute almost 70 percent of those under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today. Raising public and programmatic awareness of the special needs of women and children has been critical to ensuring that resources and responses have been appropriately deployed. In fact, women's advocates have systematically raised this issue in humanitarian circles for more than two decades. There is more work to do, however, to guarantee not only that services continue but also that they are tailored to meet the diverse needs of individual refugees in various refugee settings.
For a variety of reasons, women and girls are facing special risks. In broad terms, women are often responsible for shouldering a great deal of the responsibility for their family's continued survival, a burden that is heavier for refugee women. Beyond this, sexual abuse and gender-based violence, including domestic violence, are continuing concerns. Still another concern has been access to quality healthcare, including reproductive health care that acknowledges the risk of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases. For girls, too, lack of education can further exacerbate these other forms of vulnerability.
Yet, at a certain point, understanding that women and children compose the majority of refugees may obscure the finer diversity of experience in individual refugee settings. Indeed, women and children, like men and children, necessarily make up the majority of any population since, as a demographic fact, women make up roughly 50 percent of any normal population. Having now successfully drawn attention to this simple but critical fact for women and children's services, refugee advocates, international agencies, and others concerned with refugee well-being must face the next big hurdle: understanding more precisely the special characteristics of individual situations.
Untangling Statistics and Individualizing Services
Improvements in the collection of data have helped pave the way for more focused refugee relief programs. Over the past decade, the UNHCR has increasingly collected statistics on refugees through individual registration and population surveys. Refugee profiles by sex and age are currently available for some 120 asylum countries covering almost two-thirds of the 12 million refugees worldwide under UNHCR's care. In countries with UNHCR assistance operations, statistics by sex and age are available for 75 percent of the population, most of whom are living in camps. Based on this data, in 2002, UNHCR estimated that 48 percent of the population under its mandate were women aged 18 and up. Some 45 percent of them were refugee children under 18, roughly half of them female.
In 90 percent of the larger refugee camps—the primary focus of humanitarian aid—the proportion of women varies between 45 and 55 percent. The percentage of children ranges from less than a quarter in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans to more than half in most of Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. In short, while most refugees are indeed women and children, the distribution by sex and age differs significantly between regions, countries and refugee scenarios. And, in these contexts, men and boys of various ages may also need more tailored assistance, depending on the situation.
Toward A Gender and Age-Sensitive Approach
There is a careful balance to be struck. On the one hand, the special needs of women and girls in refugee settings should be addressed. On the other hand, programs must also recognize their skills, contributions, and roles as caregivers and agents of change. Thus, in recent years, provision of assistance has become much more tailored to special categories. These include single women, female-headed households, women with disabilities, older refugees, and adolescent girls. The challenge is to integrate our gender awareness into an understanding of whether individual refugees—men or women—are in a situation that requires specific protection or assistance measures. The more rigorous data collection we have on age, health, education, special needs, and other social and demographic characteristics, the more effective programming can be.
For example, recent humanitarian interventions in regions with aging populations have brought the plight of aging displaced people to the forefront. In some countries in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, older displaced persons outnumber children. Moreover, women are overrepresented in these areas as a result of their longer life expectancy. In general, population aging and the longer life expectancy of women will have a significant impact on the changing composition of future refugee flows.
Recognizing the needs of women and children has paved the way for individualized assistance programs. Incorporating age and gender along with other attributes of displaced persons will greatly enhance the type and quality of services provided. Furthermore, allowing refugee women and children to be active participants in program development will further mesh needs and responses. Finally, rigorous data collection on the sex and age of displaced populations will remain essential for program planning and implementation.
All statistics used in this article are taken from the Statistical Yearbook 2001: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Other Persons of Concern - Trends in Displacement, Protection and Solutions (UNHCR Geneva, October 2002). See http://www.unhcr.ch (Statistics).