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Making Life Safer for Refugee Women

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As the global financial and economic crisis continues to throw countless numbers of people out of work, millions of refugee women and girls in developing countries continue to toil at a task that is not only arduous but extremely dangerous: collecting firewood to cook meals for their families.

For thousands of these impoverished women and girls, gathering firewood is more than a vital chore -- it is often a matter of life and death. By doing what many of us achieve by simply turning on a stove, refugee women and girls regularly fall victim to rape, assault, theft, exploitation, and even murder.

Although it is impossible to obtain hard figures on the overall number of sexual attacks, fact-finding missions to refugee camps in such places as Darfur and Nepal have documented their frequency and brutality. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a particularly egregious episode occurred in Kenya in 1993, when at least 101 women were raped outside of one camp in a single night, 87 of them as they gathered firewood.

Nor is sexual violence the only aspect of the problem. Firewood, burned indoors, produces toxic fumes that threaten the health of children. The need for firewood is frequently a rationale for keeping girls out of school. And its collection -- which often includes cutting down trees on agriculturally marginal land -- is a major factor in irreversible environmental degradation.

The many dangers of firewood gathering have been recognized for years by the United Nations and nongovernmental, international, and humanitarian organizations. Yet little has been done to promote effective protection strategies. Development aid to help these and other vulnerable people -- already at historic lows - could begin falling precipitously as the world's economic woes deepen.

It is time to get beyond firewood. The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children - an organization that I helped found nearly 20 years ago -- has begun a worldwide drive to explore alternative fuels and cutting-edge energy technologies, such as clean-burning fuels, fuel-efficient stoves, and solar cookers. Working with UNHCR and the World Food Program, its goal is to reduce the violence by promoting the development of safe alternatives to firewood.

This week, just two weeks after the horrific attacks in Mumbai, the Women's Commission is hosting an international conference in New Delhi, India, that has brought together developers, users, and financial backers of new cooking technologies that can be provided to the people that need them the most.

All of this is in line with the ongoing work of the Women's Commission: to rally the world to action while giving voice to the millions of women, children, and adolescents in almost every region who have been uprooted from their homes by armed conflict and sexual violence. It is this kind of little-known crisis that first drew me to humanitarian work.

There will be no quick solutions to the perils of collecting firewood. Humanitarian aid helps, but is usually limited - and there are many competing priorities for funds already allocated. Moreover, cultural traditions are difficult to change, especially in countries where the status of women is low and gathering firewood is considered "women's work." Most men refuse to collect it, even if doing so would protect their wives, mothers, or daughters from potential assault. They say they will be killed if they venture too far afield, so the task is left to women, who will "only" be raped.

Despite such obstacles, the Women's Commission is confident that with the help of governments, international agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and diverse elements of civil society, we can liberate women and girls from their high-risk reliance on firewood, free to cook safely for themselves and their families. And we will succeed by showing the world that safe cooking fuel is as fundamental a necessity as food and water.

This piece was originally published in the Boston Globe

Actress and director Liv Ullmann is honorary chair of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.