Op-ed: Empowering women and girl migrants and refugees

By: Lakshmi Puri, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women


On 19 September 2016, Heads of State and Government will address the issues surrounding large movements of refugees and migrants and endorse a set of commitments and a global agenda for the future when they formally adopt the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

Ensuring gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and the realization of their human rights, must be a central driving force of the historic opportunity in addressing the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the Second World War.

Women make up approximately half of the 244 million international migrants and 21 million refugees worldwide. As both migrants and refugees, women have specific needs and vulnerabilities. They are often forced to move by root causes such as conflict, poverty and inequality, and face a series of challenges, which include psycho-social stress and trauma, health complications, physical harm and risk of exploitation. They often become separated from their families, and refugee women and adolescent girls can find themselves unexpectedly as head of a household.

Displaced and migrant women and girls are commonly subject to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. On top of gender-based discrimination, they may be targeted on additional grounds such as race, disability or belonging to a minority group. This discrimination limits women’s access to basic services and to decision-making processes, affecting their interactions within their households or communities, in the labor market, as well as their mobility—within and outside their countries of origin. Their voice and participation are frequently constrained and the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, an ever-present reality for all women worldwide, significantly increases.

Despite discrimination and risks, women migrants and refugees contribute in important ways to the well-being of their countries of origin, destination and transit. They bring energy, innovation and cultural diversity to their new communities. As migrants, they fill key gaps in employment, contributing to keeping the economies of their countries of destination vibrant and productive. In their home countries, their remittances are a very important source of income for their families and boost productive activities, in addition to the new skills, which they can utilize at home upon return. As refugees, they protect and provide for their families, securing education for children, health care for all family members, and finding ways to earn or increase their income. These news roles that women—and often, adolescent girls—take on, can represent an opportunity for transformative change towards gender equality and women and girls gaining greater control over their lives and their futures. Women on the move must be seen as rights-holders and agents of development rather than as security threats.

The New York Declaration provides a good starting point for a gender-responsive action agenda for addressing large movements of migrants and refugees. The Declaration commits UN Member States in ensuring that the “responses to large movements of refugees and migrants mainstream a gender perspective, promote gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and fully respect and protect the human rights of women and girls.” The Declaration vows to take into consideration the different needs, vulnerabilities and capacities of women, girls, boys, and men, and commits to tackling the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against refugee and migrant women and girls.  More importantly, recognizing the significant contribution and leadership of women in refugee and migrant communities, there is a commitment to work to ensure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the development of local solutions and opportunities.

The Declaration’s Annexes that will govern actions in the coming years on refugees and migrants set the stage for addressing the rights, needs and vulnerabilities of women and girl refugees and migrants and pave the way for their contributions to development and solutions through their meaningful participation in decision-making.  They build on and expand global leaders’ 2015 commitments to sustainable development for all in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

At UN Women we are encouraged by the commitments that are captured in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Annexes.

In the coming months, as the debate continues and the global compact on migration and the global compact on refugees are discussed, let us work together to raise awareness and advocate for these global compacts to tap women’s agency; include them in programme design and decision-making that affect their lives; and engage them in crafting a global solution to ensure that their needs are addressed and their human rights upheld; to combat sexual and gender-based violence and ensure that services and resources are readily accessible to victims; to provide basic services for migrant and refugee women and girls including cash programming and safe and decent economic opportunities to allow them to support themselves; and to ensure that proper resources for these are allocated.

In the follow-up to the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, and particularly in the context of the consultations and negotiations towards the two global compacts to be adopted in 2018, the voices, participation and leadership of women from migrant and refugee communities will be the key to address and meet their specific psycho-social, health, and gender-specific needs.

No single state can manage large movements of refugees and migrants alone. We hold a shared responsibility to take a global approach to addressing large movements of migrants and refugees and to do so in a human rights-based and gender-responsive manner.

In the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and building on the global commitments of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, gender equality must be an important part of the strategy in every way. Let us work together to protect and empower all women and girls on the move.  


This post was originally published by The Huffington Post as part of a series to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.