12/10/2011 11:27 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2012

Skills to Survive: Providing Refugee Women the Right to Work

December 10 is the anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and commemorated around the world today as "Human Rights Day." As a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for refugee programs, I view this day as a particularly important opportunity to reflect on the need to protect and preserve the human rights of refugee women, who are so often the victims of abuse and gender-based violence and who frequently suffer from an utter lack of economic opportunities.

Refugees are victims of circumstances they did not create and cannot control. And women, often unaccompanied by men, caring for young children, and lacking in job skills and opportunities, generally have the most difficult time. I have seen firsthand the lack of hope and economic opportunity for women displaced from their homes by political turmoil and living in refugee camps or squalid urban areas.

Most refugees cannot work legally or get work permits that might be available to other foreigners. This often forces them into the informal economy, which can have a devastating impact on their safety and well-being. All of us who have been involved in humanitarian relief have heard countless stories of refugee women who work 15 to 16 hours a day for little or no pay, often abused as domestic workers or trapped in other oppressive labor situations. Many are routinely denied wages and suffer sexual abuse in the workplace. But they often do not report abuse for fear of being punished or deported, or treated even worse by their employers. We have also heard of numerous heartbreaking cases of women who could not find work and were forced into prostitution in order to provide for themselves and their families.

What will it take to stop this exploitation and empower refugee women? A key step is systematically developing and expanding economic opportunities for refugee women that are safe and will allow them to ultimately become self-reliant. This should be a top priority for relief agencies, including the UN Refugee Agency, and for nongovernmental organizations providing direct relief to refugees. It will take a sustained effort on multiple fronts. We need livelihood programs that provide women with the skills and training required so they can participate in the local economy and work when they return to their homes or are resettled to third countries. Countries that host refugees must allow them to work legally, and donors should encourage host countries by supporting creative skills training and income generation programs that benefit impoverished local communities as well as refugees.

In developing livelihood initiatives for women, it is critically important to put protection considerations front and center. The humanitarian community is learning quickly that poorly designed income generation projects for refugee women can actually put them at greater risk of abuse and exploitation. Problems may arise when employment is offered only in exposed public spaces - such as factories and markets - and women cannot safely access those locations. In some situations, when humanitarian programs provide economic opportunities for women but few or none for men, domestic violence can result as a husband tries to control his wife and her earnings.

The good news is that better models are beginning to emerge. For example, we are now seeing livelihood programs that are women-focused, but also integrate efforts to reduce risk of abuse and neglect by addressing community attitudes and securing community buy-in. Other programs are helping develop practices that include providing safe places for women to save their money; developing programs that place women together (both for safety and mutual support); monitoring their workplaces to reduce the risk that abuse will take place; and teaching women financial literacy so that they can negotiate fair prices and wages and better budget their money. Readers who are interested in learning more about building protection for women and girls into livelihoods programs should review materials and tools recently developed by the Women's Refugee Commission.

Refugee women want -- and deserve -- the opportunity to be self-reliant, to provide for and protect themselves and their children, and to enjoy the dignity that comes with a decent job. They deserve the right to work and to be safe from violence and abuse. It seems so basic, but for most refugee women these fundamental rights remain elusive. On Human Rights Day 2011, responsible governments and the humanitarian community must therefore commit themselves to doing better for refugee women.