How UN Women Uplifts Refugees Through A Gender-Based Approach

 The refugee population as a whole is vulnerable to a host of issues but women refugees are especially so. According to the UNHCR, women make up around 50 percent of all displaced persons around the world but are prone to greater instances of trafficking and sexual exploitation. To better understand these issues we interviewed Vivek Rai, Deputy Director of the Civil Society Division of UN Women, and Civil Society Coordinator for the Generation Equality Forum.

Could you tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is Vivek Rai and I work as the Deputy Director of the Civil Society Division at UN Women Headquarters in New York.

Could you explain how UN Women came about?

UNIFEM was the predecessor organization to UN Women. And then UNIFEM, along with three other UN entities working on gender equality were merged into the new UN Women which became operational in January 2011 (so we are soon turning ten years old).

Women’s rights organisations have played a critical role in the formation of UN Women. They were strong advocates for a UN agency on women’s rights and gender equality. It was decided to have a Civil Society unit that would facilitate this partnership.

How did you first get involved with UN Women?

I came to UNIFEM through a chance encounter in 2009. My background was originally in journalism and I had done work on gender equality. I was asked to come for a short consultancy at UNIFEM, which then translated into a longer term commitment that has lasted over a decade now. 

 Tell me a little about what you do specifically for UN Women?

I help build strategic partnerships with feminist civil society. I joined the unit five years ago as the deputy. Since then our team has worked hard to expand the constituency of civil society from our core base of women’s rights organisations to other intersectional partners, including disability rights groups; LGBTIQ+ groups; indigenous and climate justice groups; refugees and migrants; progressive faith-based networks; men and boys advocating for gender equality; and also youth groups.  

What are some of the most pressing problems facing women refugees/IDPs in the areas you’ve worked?

I don’t work directly with women refugees/IDPs, but more with organisations that are serving them. Some of the key issues that have emerged over the years are around women and non-binary people’s risk of sexual and gender-based violence, along with other challenges, particularly in transit, of psychosocial stress and trauma, health complications, physical harm, injury and all forms of exploitation, including trafficking in human beings.

Migrant women and girls and non-binary people are commonly subject to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, based on their sex and on additional grounds such as race, religion or ethnicity. Gender-based discrimination limits women’s and girls’ and non-binary people’s decision-making and agency in the household and in the labour market, as well as their mobility, within and outside their countries of origin.

How does your work impact you personally? Benefits and downsides?

While I don’t work directly with women refugees/IDPs, we use our partnerships with civil society networks to bring the voices of these women refugees/IDPs into our spaces. It is more often very difficult to listen to these stories, and to comprehend the state of the world that allows for such transgressions. That is the downside.

The benefit, if one can call it that, is that these lived experiences that one is confronted with make it even more urgent to continue to do the work we are doing, to make sure that these conversations are not just in the corridors of power but that they make a difference in the lives of those who are at risk of being the most left behind. Given that I am based in New York, I also understand that I am not exposed to some of the realities that many of my colleagues who work directly on the frontlines of this work are. But this gives me impetus to ensure that those voices are the ones that we listen to.

Of the many women refugees/IDPs you’ve met, who made the biggest impact on you and why?

I would like to share this set of stories of that had a big impact on me when I was reading them from our work in Cameroon (on the border of Nigeria):

What do you want to see improve in the next 5 years among women IDPs in the Middle East who have been affected by violence and conflict?

Very little funding  goes to gender based violence (GBV) support. Most aid for gender equality in fragile contexts is directed towards education and health, which are important but we cannot negate the impact of GBV both in the Middle East and elsewhere.  

Another area of improvement would be in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Despite the increase in female-headed refugee households and with half of the population being comprised of women and girls, 76 percent of existing cash-for-work opportunities targeted men before UN Women’s intervention. To redress this imbalance, UN Women designed a female-focused cash for work programme as part its Oasis safe spaces, which is now the largest female-focused cash-for-work programme in theZa’atari camp. 87 percent of those reached are women. This needs to be replicated in other spaces too. At a more macro level, while bilateral aid targeting gender equality in fragile states has quadrupled over the past ten years, the amount of aid is still insufficient.

While there are “gender markers” to track the proportion of funding dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, nearly two-thirds of funding by donors did not use the marker at all. UN Women is actively supporting current efforts to update and improve the gender marker.  

Finally, to promote gender equality, humanitarian organizations need to strive for staff gender balance at all levels. However, recent research shows that men still constitute the large majority of humanitarian actors, and women often hold only symbolic positions.

For more on how UN Women helps women and refugees, please visit

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