Twenty-five years ago, a small group of women traveled from the United States to Hong Kong to bear witness to atrocities occurring in "closed camps" that were holding refugees who had fled Vietnam.
Actress and director Liv Ullmann was a member of the group. She recalls "barbed wired cities, thousands upon thousands of terrified people.... men, women and children crammed on top of each other, stacked together on shelves often three levels high. Like spoons in a drawer."
Shocked at the barbaric treatment of the refugees - 80% of whom were women and children - these dynamic women brought the situation to the world's attention and returned to the United States with a clear demand: that the humanitarian community listen to, and truly address the needs of, refugee women and children.
Working under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, they formed what is now the Women's Refugee Commission. In the years that followed, they reported on the severe challenges facing women and children affected by crises in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Bosnia - guiding humanitarian agencies on how to better support the displaced and advocating for positive changes in their lives.
There have been great transformations since that time. Twenty-five years ago, refugee women had virtually no access to reproductive health care. Today, there are clear humanitarian standards that spell out the lifesaving health services that must be provided in crisis settings, meaning that many more women and girls worldwide now receive the care they need. Hundreds of thousands of women's and babies' lives have been saved as a result.
Ten years ago, there was no guidance on providing safe access to cooking fuel, with displaced women and girls risking harassment or rape every time they went to fetch firewood. Now, guidance that we helped develop is in place and global efforts are underway to provide fuel-efficient stoves and alternatives to firewood in war-torn places such as Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even five years ago, economic programs for refugees usually failed to provide any chance of a dignified livelihood and were often not safe for women. Humanitarian agencies now have vastly improved tools to design safe and effective income-generating programs for women and youth in conflict-affected and post-conflict societies.
Despite this progress, much remains to be done not only to protect women, children and youth affected by conflict and natural disaster, but also to ensure they get the resources and skills they need to rebuild their lives.
Systemic violence against displaced women and girls remains a tragic reality on a global scale. The United Nations refugee agency points out that those fleeing war face "the rigors of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference, and frequent sexual abuse - even after reaching an apparent place of safety." Our research among refugees displaced in the Syrian crisis and elsewhere shows this to be true.
The international community has a duty to invest in measures to keep refugees safe in their new environments. But we also know that the enormous tests facing all of us in the years to come - increasing inequality, protracted conflicts, environmental crises - can only be tackled effectively if women have the opportunity to play a leading role in their communities.
The Women's Refugee Commission is working with humanitarian agencies to help make this happen, using our expertise to build communities' resilience and capacity to better respond to disasters and supporting the local groups that are the first responders in emergencies.
As we mark our 25th year, we're also building our capacity to respond to the needs of refugee women and children, and become bolder in our advocacy. In light of the increasingly protracted refugee crises across the world, we're more determined than ever to improve the lives and fight for the rights of displaced women and children, wherever they may be.
The Women's Refugee Commission honored three former refugees for their outstanding activism in the face of adversity at the Voices of Courage Awards 2014 in New York City on May 1st. For more information, please visit www.25yearsleadingchange.org
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