Women find a global voice

UNSW's Centre for Refugee Research has been selected by the United Nations to help international female refugees present their stories of survival, marking the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention.

Fourteen refugee women from around the world will travel to Geneva to present their survival stories to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with support from UNSW's Centre for Refugee Research.

The UNHCR selected the Centre to conduct the Survivors, Defenders, Providers project as part of the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention.

Centre Director Dr Eileen Pittaway and Deputy Director Linda Bartolomei will oversee the dialogue project that focuses on at-risk refugee women and girls in several countries including Jordan, India, Columbia, Uganda, Zambia, Nepal and Finland.

"We are very excited, this is a culmination of 20 years work to get these issues on the table and the fact that the High Commissioner has made it a key plank of the 60th anniversary is incredible," said Pittaway.

The dialogues, which will form the basis of personal presentations by refugees to the UNHCR in Geneva in June, aim to give refugee women a voice and an opportunity to influence change.

Refugee women and girls in camps and settlements around the world are particularly at risk of sexual and gender-related violence from authorities, militia and local men.

Pittaway, who has just returned from a refugee camp in Uganda, says trafficking, sexual and psychological abuse is commonplace in camps worldwide.

"Women have to use 'survival sex' to feed their children because they have no income so they are constantly at risk," she said. "The camps need preventative measures put in place like education, employment and secure living quarters with locks on doors."

Pittaway says part of the solution involves refugee women and girls being trained to run essential services within the camps so that they are financially self-sufficient and involved in the community.

"These women and girls are strong and resourceful and are fighting to achieve self-reliance and the ability to support their families. They don't need teams of Western counsellors to come in and fix everything - they need the opportunity to utilise the considerable skills they already have."

UNSW Masters of International Development interns will travel to Geneva to support the refugees and assist them with their presentations to the UNHCR, said Pittaway.

"Fourteen of our interns have self-funded their airfares to voluntarily take part in this project; the contribution from the University's students has been significant."

Dr Pittaway is featured in the recently released The Power of 100 book in which the Westpac Group recognises 100 Australian women who have helped shape the nation. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to support UN Women's Young Women's Leadership program in Australia.

The Centre for Refugee Research will host the National Refugee Conference in June as part of Australia's commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention.

Media contact: Fran Strachan, UNSW Media Office, 02 9385 8732