A bird's view of the UDHR: A refugee woman's perspective

Ronald Okiring - Winner of the Human Rights Essay Competition in commemoration of the UDHR 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights.[1] It is worth noting that the Declaration is comprised of 30 Articles. The aforementioned articles can be categorized into civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The gift of the UDHR is universality and indivisibility. Human rights are universal – every person is born free and equal in rights and dignity. Human rights are indivisible – all rights, whether economic, social, civil, political or cultural – are equally important and there is no hierarchy of rights. Even a cursory reading of the Declaration would enable anyone acknowledge the same.[2]

In the Ugandan context, the UDHR has been incorporated into the Bill of Rights of the 1995 Constitution[3]. Article 21 of the Constitution provides for equality of all persons before the law. This is derived from Article 7 of the UDHR which provides for the same. It is worth noting that the UDHR has been litigated upon. In Col. (Rtd) Dr. Kizza Besigye v. Yoweri Museveni Kaguta and the Electoral Commission [4] a presidential election petition, Odoki C.J took the view that Article 1(4) of the Constitution (“The people shall express their will and consent to be governed through regular free and fair elections of their representatives or through referenda”) incorporated the principles enshrined in Article 21 of the UDHR.

In this paper, I will reflect on the UDHR by sharing my thoughts on the gender theme with specific reference to the status of women refugees. We all start life as equals, but at birth we are immediately treated differently based on whether we are a boy or a girl. Time immemorial, there has been a misconception that sex and gender mean the same thing, however this is not true. Sex is biologically determined whereas gender is socially construed. In simple terms we are born male or female, we learn to be masculine or feminine. Gender is often misunderstood to be synonymous with women or an abbreviation for men and women, but gender is simply a concept that attempts to look at and understand the differences between men and women that are externally influenced and conditions imposed on the naturally given biological sexes.

In the world today that is grappling with terrorism and civil wars, the UDHR is paramount to address the pertinent issue of refugees especially women and girls. The Declaration emphasizes the principle of human dignity as a key cornerstone. The preamble enunciates the principle: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.[5] Just like any other human, refugee women deserve an equal status and standing in society.

While I applaud the effort of the various civil society organisations (CSOs) in trying to uplift the status of women refugees by trying to provide necessities, this will not offer a lasting solution to the refugee women. In a TED Talk, Robert Hakiza, a former refugee says: “if allowed to live productive lives, refugees can help themselves and lead to the development of the host country.[6] What he is trying to say is that refugees not only need food stamps, but also need economic empowerment.

According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 86% of the refugees in Uganda are women and children.[7] It is common knowledge that women are deeply attached to their children and also double as bread winners of the family. Because of the frustration of refugees living in uncertainty, refugee women are subjected to domestic violence and have to put up with their drunken husbands. It only gets worse! The girls lack sanitary pads yet they have to go to school as well as perform household chores.

I deeply regret using the word “refugee” because it has become synonymous with a plague or disease, they are often quantified by the media in numbers just like Nujeen Mustafa said in a TED Talk “we have become a number just on the news - but I am not a number. I am a human who has a gene”.[8] Sadly this is the perception majority of the people have about refugees both in the developed and developing world. It is trite law that refugees have a right to asylum, however where it is convenient some developed countries refer to them as “illegal immigrants” - because of space and time that is a topic for another day.

With such a background surely a refugee woman cannot be on the same standing with an ordinary person, this therefore contravenes Article 2 and 7.[9] As I reflect on the 70 years of the UDHR, I hope for a world in which refugees - especially women and girls - have an equal standing in society. To achieve this ambitious goal, I propose certain measures that should be taken.

Firstly, I propose that stakeholders should encourage saving groups (SACCOs) among the women which will enable them access credit to set up business enterprises. Women refugees often find it hard to access credit because they lack collateral security. The current commercial interest rate hovers around 16% per annum. This cannot easily be paid back by the women refugees. However, with low interest rates they will be able to set up businesses that will greatly improve their standards of living, which is in line with Article 25 of the UDHR that guarantees the right to adequate standards of living.

Secondly, it would be absurd and inconsiderate to expect governments to set up more schools considering the meagre resources that are available. Amidst these challenges however, refugee women, especially girls, can be empowered through e-learning. This will be in tandem with Article 26 of the Declaration that provides for the right to education. In a globalized world today, computer literacy skills come in handy. I propose a scheme should be put in place that will train young refugee children coding skills. Who knows - may be the next Bill Gates will come from Lamwo Refugee camp!

Unlike in many countries in the world, refugees in Uganda have access to land. This is a very positive step towards empowerment. However, to ensure that refugees fully utilize this opportunity, I propose that an application should be set up to monitor the various economic activities that the refugees are engaged in. This application should be linked to the already existing database of refugees. This will ensure accountability.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) usually handles generic complaints of violation of human rights. However, refugee women complaints sometimes do not reach the commission because of costs and bureaucracy involved, yet they constantly suffer violations most notably domestic violence which is expressly prohibited under Article 5 of the UDHR. I propose that UHRC and OHCHR set up a special tribunal to handle specific violations of rights of refugee women. I suggest that representatives of this special tribunal should be stationed at every refugee camp to resolve disputes among refugees. This tribunal will provide an effective national remedy to the women refugees, as envisaged under Article 8 of the UDHR. It should also follow the principles of justice provided for under Article 10 in reaching its verdicts to ensure fairness for all.


In a much celebrated quote, Eleanor Roosevelt says, “where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home-so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world”.[10]

Today the world is celebrating the news of the newly elected Ilhan Omar, who lived in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. In an acceptance speech to her newly elected office, she said “I would have loved to have heard a story like mine; I could have used it as an inspiration to get by. The lesson is to be learned to be hopeful, to dream and to aspire for more”.[11] As it is apparent in the arguments provided herein, refugee women find themselves in a disenfranchised position. As we mark 70 years of the UDHR, the Declaration cannot be more relevant in the effort towards refugee women emancipation. With strict adherence to the Declaration, we shall have more stories like that of Ilhan Omar.




[1] http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2008/12/60th-anniversary-universal-declaration-human-rights-time-deliver-2008120/

[3] 1995 Constitution of Uganda

[4] Col(Rtd) Dr. Kizza Besigye v Yoweri Museveni Kaguta and the Electoral Commission Election Petition 1 of 2001 (Supreme Court) (unreported)

[7] Uganda Daily Newspaper, New Vision, dated 20 June 2017

[9] Article 2 envisages equality of all people.