This article on ‘The rights of refugee women in the wake of Afghanistan Crisis’ is written by Akriti Raina and aims to trace the rights of refugee women under international law, the various challenges faced by them and discusses the measures that could be taken to protect them.
In the wake of the recent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the consequent influx of refugees into various countries to escape their ordeal, questions about the rights of refugee women become important. Women have traditionally been victims of the violent aspects of power shift and changing political situations across the globe. Thus, issues related to their health, safety, development etc. assume greater importance when their human rights are at perils.
In a simple sense of the term, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave the country of his/her nationality due to persistent fear of persecution, war or violence. Most often these people cannot return back to the country they came from due to these threats.
A refugee is different from an internally displaced person, who flee from one place to another inside their country but do not cross any international borders and are, therefore, not protected by international laws governing the refugees.
III. Definition of the term “refugee” under international law
While attempting to understand the meaning of the term “refugee” under international law, the Geneva Convention of 1951 and the Protocol of 1967 become important. These conventions are to be read in light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 as the refugee crisis is a concern of human rights.
- The Geneva Convention, 1951– This convention is a major international convention defining the meaning of the term refugee, their social rights, assistance they can receive from host countries as well as their obligation towards the host governments.
Under Article 1 of the convention, a refugee is a person who owing to the fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality etc. is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to avail the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
However, its application was limited to the refugees of the aftermath of World War II in Europe.
- Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967– This protocol broadened the application of protection to refugees and expanded the scope of the 1951 convention as the problem of refugee displacement spread across the globe.
IV. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was founded in 1950 as an organ of the General Assembly to look after the conditions of refugees. The functions of the High Commissioner include providing protection to refugees and finding solutions for them by assisting Governments to facilitate their integration within new communities. These functions are non-political, social and humanitarian.
In line with the ideals of the 1990 UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women , which provided for designing of appropriate programmes to cater to the needs of the refugee women by looking at their demands, ensuring their full participation and protecting them from abuse etc, the UNHCR adopted the 1991 guidelines on the protection of refugee women. These guidelines acknowledge the right of refugee women to food, safety, shelter as well as protection against sexual, physical and other forms of abuse. 
V. Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children
The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children is an independent organization founded in 1989, it not only conducts research to look into the conditions of refugee women and children but also provides policy guidance to various governments regarding the same. 
VI. Refugee women and the international law
The laws concerning the refugees do not differentiate between the gender of the refugee. Refugees, both, men and women are treated alike and have the same rights and responsibilities.
Even though all humans have the right to equality and equal protection of the law, women have traditionally been in a much more disadvantaged position than men when it comes to guaranteeing and protecting rights.
The position of refugee women, when compared to their male counterparts, is no different. These women not only face persecution threats from their countrymen but also face severe exploitation and harassment- mental, emotional and physical at the hands of agents, authorities etc. This is termed Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV). 
Emotional Violence refers to the humiliation faced during the process of seeking refuge. Physical violence refers to the incidents of physical harm such as hitting, choking, beating, killing faced by these women. Socio-economic violence results from the denial of legal and health care facilities including sanitary measures. Medical neglect puts women at a higher risk of developing fatal diseases.
A research report by Amnesty International in 2016 shed light on the sexual harassment, violence and assault faced by women and children in all stages of their journey as refugees, including on European soil. Many of these refugee women migrate from some of the most dangerous and war-torn countries, only to fall prey to their vulnerabilities, especially those travelling without husbands or male members of their families.
These women battle with domestic as well as outside abuse at the hands of their male counterparts. Many women report abuse at the hands of smugglers asking for sexual favours in return for passage to another country or at the hands of army men/ officials taking advantage of their helpless condition. 
The goal of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, is to protect women against discrimination of all forms such as economic, sexual etc. This convention is in its true sense an extension of the human rights of women. It has been recognized by states across the world. However, one can find the non-application of its ideals when it comes to the case of refugee women.
It is because the challenges faced by refugees are not considered to be challenges to their basic human rights and dignity.
Women are placed at the margins of the process of achievement of human rights and dignity, subjugated and subjected to traditional forms of patriarchal domination, as well as neglected and abused in cases of violent political and structural shifts of power.
Lack of adequate receiving facilities in host countries, non-access to health facilities, economic dependence combined with the absence of opportunities to develop in a free and secure environment, put them in a disadvantaged position.
VII. The way forward
One of the main reasons for overlooking the problems of refugees is the perception of the local and global masses towards them. Removing the stigma attached to the idea of refugee influx among the global community will allow a harmonious balance between the interests of the local citizens and the demands of the refugee community.
This will enable them to avail opportunities and help them to utilize their potential in the host country and reduce economic or resource dependence. This becomes important when it comes to women, as a major step to their independence is financial security.
Betterment of refugee women is possible through a combined and collective effort of all the countries and international organizations.
Local and international organizations such as UNHCR, human rights commission, women commissions, NGO’s etc. can come together for the achievement of these goals.
An important step is providing psychological, emotional and legal assistance to women and ensuring that they are well-equipped with basic facilities to develop healthily, by the host country.
Strict adherence to the UN Guidelines on Protection of Refugee Women along with the flexibility of key players in developing policies according to the requirements at hand would be the correct approach.