REFUGEE WOMEN FLEEING GENDER-BASED PERSECUTION
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE, 4-6 May 2001, MONTREAL:
From 4 to 6 May 2001, the Canadian Council for Refugees held an international conference on the topic of "Refugee Women Fleeing Gender-Based Persecution" with the goal of promoting recognition of gender-related persecution as a basis for refugee protection. Plans for the conference were initiated a year and half earlier through the establishment of an international network and benefited from and were shaped through the collaboration, support and input of a wide range of individuals and organizations from around the world. Various aspects of the conference, such as format, topics of discussion, and potential speakers, were decided based on the advice and suggestions received from the network in general and members of the international advisory committee and steering committee in particular.
The conference was publicized through over two thousand mailings, emails and user groups, in addition to tens of web sites, electronic and printed journals, newsletters, and various forms of pamphlets related to human rights, women's rights and refugee rights groups in many parts of the world. All efforts were made to facilitate the participation of NGO representatives and refugee women at the conference. The financial assistance sought from several organizations enabled us to sponsor the participation of 47 individuals, 24 from overseas and 23 from Canada. In addition, where necessary the CCR waived the registration fee for refugee women and waived or reduced the fee for NGO representatives.
Judging from verbal and written evaluations we have received during and after the conference, we are confident that the conference has been extremely successful in meeting its objectives which were:
1. To create an international network of NGOs advocating for the recognition of gender-based refugee claims;
2. To increase awareness among NGOs in a wide number of countries of the need to recognize gender-based refugee claims;
3. To offer a forum for decision-makers, academics, policy-makers, and representatives of inter-governmental organizations, to gather information and network around the issue of protecting women fleeing gender-based persecution.
The conference was also successful in identifying current gaps in the treatment of women fleeing gender-based persecution and updating recommendations for the Canadian refugee determination system. The long term impact of the conference depends on the participating actors whose commitment in carrying out action plans at national and international levels would be instrumental in achieving better protection for refugee women.
A total of 254 individuals from 29 countries participated in the conference. The participants were mainly NGO representatives, refugee women, lawyers, academics as well as government officials, decision makers and UNHCR representatives.
A list of countries represented is given below. It should be noted that many of the participants from countries in the West, particularly those from within Canada, were originally from countries located in the South and brought to the discussion their experiences in their countries of origin or flight. Due to large number of last minute registration information about participants' residence and their affiliation is not complete.
The countries represented at the conference were:
North America: Canada (154), USA (36), Mexico (1)
Europe: UK (13), Netherlands (4), Norway (3), Bosnia Herzegovina (2), Sweden (2), Romania (1), Czech Republic (1), Turkey (1), Ireland (1)
Central America: Costa Rica (4), Nicaragua (1), Guatemala (1), Honduras (1)
Africa: South Africa (4), Nigeria (3), Kenya (1), Zimbabwe (1)
Oceania: Australia (3), New Zealand (2)
Asia: Iran (2), Pakistan (2), Thailand (1), Philippines (1), Kyrgyzstan (1), Sri Lanka (1)
(NB participants working predominantly at the international level, notably UNHCR representatives in Geneva, are not included in this breakdown).
The format of the conference was designed to promote the active contributions of all participants in the various sessions. Meanwhile, the conference benefited from the contribution of 77 speakers, respondents and facilitators, (seventy women and seven men), some of whom spoke in more than one session. Efforts were made to have a cross-section of speakers in all the sessions. The speakers and facilitators came from the following countries: Canada, USA, UK, Netherlands, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia, Iran, Pakistan, New Zealand, Geneva, Sweden, Thailand, Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka, Romania, Kenya, and Mexico.
In almost all the sessions there was at least one NGO representative and/or refugee woman. Others included academics, UNHCR representatives, and government officials.
FORMAT AND TOPICS
The conference consisted of two plenary sessions (opening and final strategizing), and 21 workshops, some with simultaneous translation in English or French. In addition, adequate space was scheduled in order to promote networking through group lunch and informal discussion groups on Friday, and social event on Saturday evening.
The opening plenary session, consisting of two parts, was designed to situate the topic of conference within the larger context and to provide an overview of the refugee definition and of the gender-related persecution. In the final plenary, an overview of the recommendations identified during the workshops was presented to the whole group and there was general discussion on follow-up strategies to ensure protection for women asylum seekers.
In addition to the plenary sessions, the conference was composed of 21 workshops. In each time slot, there were three parallel workshops, each lasting one and half hour, except for the Sunday morning workshops lasted two and half hours each. In each workshop two or three speakers spoke for 30-45 minutes and in the remaining time, participants brought forth their points and questions. It was the organizers' objective to provide plenty of space for participation from the floor and for this reason speakers were asked to briefly introduce their topics of discussion in 10 minutes. Obviously, some workshops were more successful than the others in providing sufficient time for group discussion, but overall participants commented favourably on the degree to which sessions provided for productive exchange.
With regard to the diversity and range of the topics, perhaps it will suffice here to indicate that a number of participants commented that they found all topics so important they had difficult time choosing among simultaneous workshops.
Given the sensitivity of the issues and the speakers' diverse backgrounds, it was decided not to videotape or otherwise record the sessions in order to avoid possible interference with the flow of discussion. Instead, teams were assigned to work throughout the conference to take notes and collect the identified recommendations on each discussed topic. The notes in addition to the papers submitted by the speakers will be used to prepare the conference proceedings which will be published in a near future.
SUMMARY OF EVALUATIONS
All participants were encouraged to fill in and return the evaluation form enclosed in the conference package. There were 41 respondents.
The countries where the 41 respondents live and their affiliation is more or less representative of the total conference participants. (Canada: 15; USA: 5; Netherlands: 2; Scandinavia: 1; Europe: 5; UK: 1; Philippines: 1; Africa: 2; West Africa: 1; Nigeria: 1; South Africa: 1; Kyrgyzstan: 1; Sri Lanka: 1; NOT specified: 4).
The respondents identified themselves in following categories: academic: 4; academic and government official: 1; Lawyer 5; government official: 2; NGO: 13; NGO and lawyer: 1; NGO and academic: 1; policy maker: 1; Refugee woman: 2; refugee woman and Lawyer: 1; refugee woman and UNHCR: 1; UNHCR: 1. Not identified: 3.
Generally, the evaluations of the conference point to a successful conference with lots of strong aspects, entailing much more positive comments than negative ones.
The first two questions about "overall" impact of the conference, and "representation" are among the most answered questions, with 98% response rate. An absolute majority was very satisfied and impressed with the range of participants, particularly geographically but also institutionally. Some of the respondents would have wished for a stronger representation from government, decision makers and UNHCR.
93% responded to the next question on "participation" of the participants in various sessions, again mostly satisfied with the opportunities provided for networking and group discussion. Some suggested more social and informal events and a few respondents wanted to see more time allocated to the speakers or to the participation from the floor.
The questions on the "format" of the conference and the "topics covered" have 98% and 93% response rates respectively. The most frequent comment about the format and topics covered is related to the number of workshops among which the participants had to choose, consequently missing an important topic over another one. While some of the respondents suggested fewer parallel workshops with fewer topics, others expressed interest in covering more topics, notably themes related to racism.
About 78% of the respondents answered the question about "individual sessions". It would be impossible to conclude which session worked best or least well for the majority since a particular session indicated as the best for one person is otherwise indicated by another. Nevertheless, the sessions on "trafficking on women", "gender guidelines" and "success and ongoing challenges, part II" received exclusively positive comments. The opening plenary, part I was also appreciated by many respondents.
In response to questions on how successful the conference was in "promoting protection for refugee women" and in "developing strategies" for action (responded to by 79% and 71% respectively), a large number of respondents thought the conference had contributed to the recognition of the problem at national and international levels and that it had been successful in identifying the recommendations. Meanwhile, it was agreed by the same respondents that the "success" of the conference in securing protection on gender grounds will be determined only in the future, depending on how far the recommendations travel, and how they will be acted upon by various parties involved: NGO advocates, governments, decision makers and UNHCR.
Generally, it was indicated that the last plenary session on strategizing was not long enough to deal with such a crucial issue as to arriving at a collective decision on a clear and detailed action plan.
The majority of the respondents to the question on "follow up" to this conference (81% answered this question) wanted to see "actions": implementation of the recommendations, continuing networking and maintaining the links built in the conference, similar regional conferences - even annual conferences on the same topic, to ensure development of strategies for action, at various levels, and publication/circulation of papers presented at the conference.
Finally, the responses to the "benefits of the conference" (81% answered this question) point to the success of conference in meeting some of its major objectives: increased networking among NGOs and others concerned with the protection of refugee women fleeing gender-based persecution; increased sensitivity to the realities of refugee women; and creating a sense of renewed energy in advocates and activists.
Prior to the conference and as a means of familiarizing the participants with the discussion in the upcoming conference, the CCR prepared and mailed background information packets to a number of participants. Others were notified of the content of the packet and upon their request, were sent the packet at a later date or given one at the conference site. The materials included in the packet were:
- "Battered Women and the Criteria for Refugee Status", by Mark R. Von.
Strenberg, 2000. - "Refugee Women and a Gender Perspective Approach", Executive
Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, 1999.
- " Position on Asylum Seeking and Refugee Women", European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 1997.
- "Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution: Update", Immigration and Refugee Board, Ottawa, Canada, 25 Nov. 1996.
- "Declaration on Refugee Protection for Women", Citizenship and Immigration Canada, June 1994.
- "IRB Guidelines on Gender-Related Persecution", Notes for Remarks by Nurjehan Mawani, 1994.
All the speakers were required to submit an outline of their remarks prior to the conference; they were also asked to sent in a longer paper of their remarks, if convenient. (It was decided not to require the submission of papers in order to avoid creating a possible barrier to participation of refugee women and NGO representatives). Based on the materials received prior to the conference, a nineteen-page document was produced, and included in the conference package, containing the outline of presentations.
The CCR is currently in the process of preparing the conference proceedings with the intention of publishing them in the coming months. All speakers have been contacted and asked to send their papers or revise the papers they had already sent in the light of the conference. The notes taken throughout the conference will also be used to complement the outlines and papers.
It is hoped that the publication of the conference proceedings will benefit the network members and others who could not attend the conference, as well as the conference participants who did not have a chance to attend the sessions of their interest. Furthermore, the publication of the proceedings is hoped to be a means of documenting and following up on an event which was considered to be an important step towards international recognition of gender-based refugee claims.
The CCR gratefully acknowledges the financial support received for the conference from Canadian International Development Agency, Canadian Labour Congress, CAW Social Justice Fund, Centrale des syndicats du Québec, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Danish Refugee Council, Department of Justice Canada, Nancy's Very Own Foundation, Primate's World Relief and Development Fund, Rights and Democracy, Status of Women Canada, The Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, United Methodist Committee on Relief, USA, Women's Inter-Church Council of Canada.