The term “gender-mainstreaming” refers to the international strategy towards realising gender equality, which was adopted in 1995 at the UN International Conference on Women in Beijing. The strategy involves integrating gender perspectives into the design, implementation and evaluation of public policy.

The recent “Me Too” movement has seen an explosion of women’s rights activism across the globe, and as laws regarding the conduct of sexual crimes trials are being scrutinised everywhere, gender mainstreaming appears to be at the fore of the conversation.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of disparity between men and women that policy must accommodate for is that between male and female asylum seekers. In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established its Age, Gender and Diversity policy to guide the UNHCR’s work with women, men, girls and boys affected by forced displacement and statelessness. The UNHCR has underlined how the most vulnerable groups that require effective protection responses are that of all women, persons with disabilities, and elderly men. The UNHCR has identified single adult refugee women to be one of the most vulnerable groups within the refugee population because of their lack of financial means, professional qualifications, and family support.

Female asylum seekers are often particularly vulnerable due to difficulties they face in providing proof for their claim of asylum. This is largely because they are unable to exhibit as much evidence as men or choose to deliberately withhold information because they have been the victim of sexual torture or gender persecution and are reluctant to report their stories.

Refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls are also particularly vulnerable because of exposure to gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is often common within the community of origin due to unequal gender relations and is frequently used as a weapon to threaten and humiliate populations, which in turn can be a cause of forced displacement or a consequence of them. Throughout their displacement experience, female asylum seekers and refugees are at significant risk of exposure to violence. Dangerous and degrading situations may occur during their journey, in detention or reception centres, or in the host country, sometimes even perpetrated by those who have been trusted to protect them. Falling victim to human trafficking is also a considerable risk.

Despite issues of gender-related persecution and violence being put onto the international agenda for the past 20 years, the translation of this agenda into effective policy-making and policies has yet to be seen. In a report commissioned by the European Parliament, it identified “one of the problems with policies to support women refugees and asylum seekers lies in a failure of transmission of the goals of gender sensitivity through all the various bureaux and representatives of a large bureaucratic organization such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.

Perhaps policies to protect female asylum seekers and refugees must move beyond a mere UNHCR focus on “vulnerable” groups and towards a gendered understanding of the global processes that produce refugees and their protection needs.


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