25 Years Leading Change — Women's Refugee Commission

Photo by Gerald Martone

25 Voices of Courage

A year-long campaign brought to you by the WRC and Thomson Reuters featuring 25 stories of refugees, the issues they face and how the WRC is helping.

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2014 Voices of Courage Luncheon

25 Years of the Women's Refugee Commission


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Under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (now the Women’s Refugee Commission [WRC]) is founded by Liv Ullmann, Catherine O’Neill, Susan Stark Alberti, Vera Blinken and Susan Forbes Martin, with Mary Anne Schwalbe as the Founding Director. The purpose of the organization is to advocate for programs and policy that will improve the lives and protect the rights of refugee women and children around the world.



The Afghan Women’s Social Service Center, offering training and literacy programs to refugees in Pakistan, is founded following the WRC’s first delegation to Pakistan, when Afghan women expressed a desperate need for such services. As a result of WRC’s advocacy , the International Rescue Committee agrees to support the center with institutional infrastructure and the National Endowment for Democracy gives it a seed grant of $5,000. Within a year, the U.S. Embassy recognizes the Center and the women who run it as a leading example of what could be done to promote the education and livelihoods of Afghan women and support it with a $100,000 grant. This was the first program conceived and run by Afghan refugee women themselves.

Photo by R. Chakasani


WRC helps craft the UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) first-ever policy on the protection of refugee women, from which UNHCR’s 1991 Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women evolved. By highlighting the general protection needs of women affected by conflict (as distinct from men), the guidelines set the stage for standardizing programming that specifically targets women. The guidelines explicitly acknowledge exposure to sexual violence as a vulnerability of refugee women and calls upon the humanitarian community to address it within its protection mandate.

Photo by Melanie Wyler


Following a visit to Cambodia, where we witnessed the devastating effects of anti-personnel landmines, WRC is the first U.S. organization to call for an international ban on the use of these weapons. The WRC convenes a meetings at which the seeds are sown that lead to the creation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1992. WRC is a founding member of the ICBL, which, in 1997, receives the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts to bring about the international Mine Ban Treaty.



WRC reports that rape is being used as a weapon of war in the Balkans following a mission to Bosnia and Croatia. Our findings are reported by the media, including in the Los Angeles Times and on CNN. Rape is later recognized as a crime of genocide under international law.

Photo by A. Herrero


WRC coauthors Guidelines for Women’s Asylum Claims, the first document to provide a framework for analyzing and interpreting the claims of women asylum seekers, as well as guidance for interviewing women and assessing the evidence they present. The guidelines are endorsed by 35 organizations, and are our first involvement in work to ensure the rights of migrant and asylum-seeking women and children.

Photo by Phil Romans


The U.S. Congress passes the Refugee Women and Children Protection Act following advocacy by WRC. The bill directs the U.S. government to address the protection and basic needs of refugee women and children in providing for overseas assistance and protection of refugees and displaced persons. It requires the Secretary of State to take concrete steps concerning such refugees as called for in the 1991 UNHCR Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women.



Our landmark report Refugee Women and Reproductive Health Care: Reassessing Priorities is released. The findings are advocated at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, where the rights of refugee and internally displaced women, men and adolescents to reproductive health are explicitly recognized in the Program of Action. This galvanized United Nations agencies and NGOs to advocate for and start ensuring that reproductive health became part of standard practice in emergency settings.



WRC plays a critical role in developing guidelines released by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to recognize rape, domestic abuse and sexual violence against women as potential grounds for asylum.



WRC helps launch and coordinates the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium (now, Reproductive Health Response in Crises Consortium) and becomes a leading member of the newly formed UN agency-led Inter-agency Working Group (IAWG) on Reproductive Health in Refugee Settings (now, IAWG on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings). RHRC and IAWG begin to develop standards and tools for ensuring quality reproductive health services for refugees.

Photo by The Advocacy Project


WRC successfully advocates for President Clinton to authorize a $5 million grant for a Bosnian Women's Initiative, administered by the UN refugee agency. The initiative provides loans for income-generating projects for women's home-based enterprises and for women-owned businesses and companies. It provides training in business management, marketing and accounting, farming techniques for those returning to agricultural communities, and in skills vital to rebuilding their country, such as engineering, architecture, plumbing and construction.



Our report Liberty Denied draws attention to the special concerns of asylum-seeking women who are being held in U.S. detention centers and WRC is the first NGO to call for fundamental reforms to immigration detention. We work with partners to create and participate on the steering Committee of Detention Watch network, the first formal network to focus on US immigration detention practices. DWN is now a key player in immigration detention policy discussions and has hundreds of member organizations.

Photo by Margaret Killjoy


In visits to detention centers around the United States, the WRC finds children as young as ten are being held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service while their asylum claims are being considered. In response to our advocacy efforts, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issues new guidelines for the treatment and protection of children seeking asylum in the U.S., and WRC staff train asylum officers and immigration judges on the guidelines.

Photo by Louisa Conrad


WRC provides language to the new SPHERE Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response that ensures that gender considerations are incorporated into all sectors of humanitarian response. Language provided by WRC addresses concerns of women and youth in the design of humanitarian relief programs. The Sphere Guidelines become the globally agreed to standard for humanitarian response.

Photo by Diana Quick


Behind Locked Doors: Abuse of Refugee Women in the Krome Detention Center, which follows up on Liberty Denied (1997), is the first public report to expose pervasive sexual assault of women in immigration custody. The report leads to a high-level investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions of confinement at the Krome facility in Miami. Criminal investigations and lawsuits follow.

Photo by Ashitakka


With others, WRC advocates for passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the first-ever Security Council resolution to address the devastating impact of war on women. The resolution calls upon all parties to armed conflict to fully respect international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls and to take special measures to ensure their protection. It also recognizes the need to respect the civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps and settlements. The WRC is a member of a committee established to monitor implementation of resolution 1325.



WRC co-sponsors and organizes, with UNHCR, the international Consultation with Refugee Women, the first time refugee women were invited to Geneva to directly raise their collective concerns to UNHCR's senior management. WRC co-sponsors women’s dialogues in Pakistan and Canada, held in preparation for the consultation. Following the consultation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees releases the "Five Commitments to Refugee Women."  These commitments are: 1) developing integrated country-level strategies to address violence against women, including domestic violence; 2) individual registration of women; 3) 50 percent representation of women in management committees; 4) the participation of women in the distribution processes for food and non-food items; and 5) the standard provision of sanitary materials to all women and girls.



WRC successfully advocates for Congress to transfer custody of unaccompanied refugee children in the U.S. from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an enforcement agency, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a social services agency. This means improved conditions for refugee and immigrant children, ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers, entering the United States alone.



WRC publishes If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced and Post-conflict Settings on behalf of the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium—the first major report on gender-based violence in these settings, which highlights gaps and needs, leading  to a five-year initiative to address them.

Photo by Melissa Winkler


WRC conducts first research on Minimum Initial Services Package for reproductive health in crisis situations. The MISP,  a set of priority activities is designed to: prevent and respond to sexual violence; prevent excess maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity; reduce HIV transmission; and plan for comprehensive RH services in a coordinated manner to reduce illness and death particularly among women and girls.  The findings of the research showed a major gap in attention to these  life-saving interventions and lead to a ten year commitment of the WRC to ensure that the MISP is a standard response from the onset of all emergencies.



Our groundbreaking Global Survey on Education in Emergencies examines the massive gaps in education for refugee and displaced children around the world and leads to the creation of a global network to address these gaps

Photo by Holly Myers


WRC co-leads the first inter-agency global evaluation on reproductive health (2002-2004). The resulting report, Reproductive Health Services for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Report of an Inter-agency Global Evaluation, highlights progress and specific gaps and needs on reproductive health since 1994. The findings are used to focus SRH services globally over the ensuing ten years.



Our report Youth Speak Out: New Voices on the Protection and Participation of Young People Affected by Armed Conflict provides a unique overview of challenges young people face during and after armed conflict and offers youth-driven solutions for addressing these problems.



WRC publishes Masculinities: Male Roles and Male Involvement in the Promotion of Gender Equality to inform and influence UNHCR’s age, gender and diversity mainstreaming (AGDM) in all its work. Through AGDM, UNHCR seeks to ensure that all persons of concern enjoy their rights on an equal footing and are able to participate fully in the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their family members and communities.



The WRC’s report, Beyond Firewood: Fuel Alternatives and Protection Strategies for Displaced Women and Girls, is the first in-depth report on the sexual violence that women and girls face when they leave refugee camps to collect firewood. It puts the issue of safe access to cooking fuel and household energy on to the attention of humanitarian organizations around the world, including UN agencies and international relief organizations.



"What Happens When I Go to Immigration Court?" is a first-of-its-kind educational video—with an accompanying manual—for immigrant children, which is now used extensively in Immigration Court, children’s shelters and as a training tool for attorneys across the country.



WRC develops the Minimum Initial Service Package distance learning module in six language versions. The module incorporates a set of activities to be implemented by humanitarian workers operating in health, camp design and management, community services, protection and other sectors during the early days of a crisis. More than 4,000 people have received certificates of completion.



Your Right to Education: A Handbook for Refugees and Displaced Communities, along with the innovative human rights booklet The Right to Education during Displacement, raises awareness through drawings of everyone’s right to education. Your Right to Education is illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, a three-time Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winner. The books are distributed to refugees in settings around the world so that they can become advocates on their own behalf.



Our report Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families exposes the U.S. government’s practice of detaining immigrant families and results in significant improvements in conditions and to a significant reduction in the use of family detention.



Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-affected Populations is the first global study on problems faced by refugees with disabilities. The accompanying resource kit quickly becomes the "go-to" reference for people working with refugees with disabilities globally.



Guidance produced by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings, which is co-led by the WRC, is endorsed by IASC. This puts in place the foundation of a coordinated global strategy for addressing fuel needs at the start of all new emergencies.



Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children officially changes its name to Women's Refugee Commission.



Halfway Home: Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody is a landmark study of the conditions of care and confinement for children in immigration proceedings without a parent or guardian, leading to improvements in care. The report continues to be used as a critical training and educational resource for anyone trying to understand U.S. practices with respect to migrant children.



WRC conducts first-of-its-kind research into community-based care for survivors of sexual violence among internally displaced persons in Myanmar (Burma) to demonstrate how services can be delivered in crisis-affected settings where there is no access to health facilities.



Building Livelihoods: A Field Manual for Practitioners in Humanitarian Settings is a first-of-its-kind manual to guide humanitarian agencies in providing economic opportunities for refugees. It quickly becomes the WRC’s most downloaded resource, and forms the basis for trainings in refugee settings around the world.

Photo by Chris deBode


WRC leads a coalition effort that results in the UNHCR Executive Committee adopting a Conclusion on Persons with Disabilities. We advocate for specific language and issues that will help countries identify and serve refugees with disabilities, who have been severely overlooked in crisis settings.

WRC establishes reproductive health as a critical health consideration within disaster risk reduction efforts. We establish a specific sub-working group of the health platform of the international strategy for disaster risk reduction to focus on this topic and launch a related policy brief on behalf of the working group.



WRC publishes Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention, which, along with strategic advocacy, makes the issue of children left behind by the detention and deportation of migrant parents a critical factor in the immigration policy debate.



WRC launches the innovative social media campaign "Mama: Together for Safe Births in Crises," which uses social networking to improve maternal health care and reduce maternal death and disability in crisis-affected countries. Users from 42 countries are engaged within the first year.



As a result of our advocacy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement starts to use a risk assessment tool to ensure that the most vulnerable immigration populations will not be detained unless absolutely necessary. This includes women, families and unaccompanied children.



WRC publishes Preventing Gender-based Violence, Building Livelihoods: Guidance and Tools for Improved Programming, the first report on how to make economic programs safe for women.



WRC, in collaboration with UNHCR, is among the first to document family planning use and knowledge in refugee settings in a multi-country study. The report Refocusing Family Planning in Refugee Settings: Findings and Recommendations from a Multi-Country Baseline Studyhighlights gaps in information and services for adolescents in particular.



Our disability inclusion trainings reach 250 staff of humanitarian organizations and 400 refugees with disabilities in urban areas as well as in the rural refugee settlements in five countries. As a result, 80,000 refugees with disabilities will have better access to programs and services.



WRC gives voice to stateless women through our first-of-its-kind research documenting how statelessness undermines women and their families’ protection and their access to basic services.



In response to our efforts, ICE issues its "Parental Interest Directive," which establishes critical protections allowing parents in immigration proceedings to keep their children safe and maintain custody.

WRC provides technical support to UNHCR and its NGO partners on protecting persons with disabilities in the Syrian crisis.

Photo by UNAMID


Our advocacy helps inform the UN Security Council’s newest resolution on Women, Peace and Security, which aims to ensure that women and girls have much-needed access to livelihood services, comprehensive reproductive health care and equal citizenship rights.

Photo by Joshua Roberts


Launches Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs in Humanitarian Settings: An In-depth Look at Family Planning Services, which the WRC developed with Save the Children, in partnership with UNHCR and UNFPA. The report served as a state of the field for adolescent sexual and reproductive health programming.



WRC joins a team of local Filipinos and international aid workers responding to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Works with local businesses and organizations to identify opportunities to restore self-sufficiency to the most affected women and men in the town of Basey.

Photo by Alissa Everett

In 2014

The WRC has many plans for 2014. A few highlights are:

We will  document the unique needs and risks faced by very young adolescents within three conflict-affected populations in Ethiopia, Thailand, and Lebanon in partnership with the CDC.

We will lead global initiatives to integrate sexual and reproductive health in disaster risk reduction including building community capacityand resilience.

We will launch with Inter-agency Working Group (IAWG) on Reproductive Health in Crisis findings from the +20  global evaluation of sexual and reproductive in crises to inform the International Conference on Population and Development +20 and post-MDG agendas.

We will launch multi-country evidence on the unique sexual and reproductive health needs and capacities of persons with disabilities, as well as on the issue of gender-based violence and refugees with disabilities.

We will launch a global campaign to eliminate gender discrimination in nationality laws.

We will complete and roll out our gender assessment of the Syrian refugee response.

We will publish our guide to help immigrant parents maintain custody of their children in every single immigration detention center in the United States.

We will lead global initiatives to ensure crisis-affected populations have safe access to firewood and alternative energies.

We will lead humanitarian efforts to ensure adolescent girls uprooted by crises and conflict, are better protected by the humanitarian system.

Please visit our website for more information on our programs and acoomplishments.

Special Features

The Voices of Courage luncheon took place on May 1, 2014.

Read our recap of the celebratory luncheon here.


© Jon Styer, Eastern Mennonite University

Leymah Gbowee


Luncheon Host Committees

Lists in formation

Honorary Host Committee

  • Dina Dublon
  • H.E. Sir Mark Lyall Grant
  • H.E. António Guterres
  • Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
  • Dr. Babatunde Ostominehin
  • H.E. Mr. Geir O. Pedersen
  • H.E. Ms. Maria Cristina Perceval
  • Fiona O’Neill Reeves
  • Richard Reeves
  • H.E. Mr. Guillermo Rishchynski
  • H.E. Mr. Gary Quinlan
  • Lily Safra
  • The Hon. Charles E. Schumer
  • Nina Schwalbe
  • Will Schwalbe
  • H.E. Mr. Paul Seger
  • Meryl Streep
  • Liv Ullmann
  • Meredith Vieira

Host Committee

Advisory Committee


Leading Sponsor

  • Thomson Reuters Logo

Principal Sponsors

  • Deloitte
  • Nancy and Chris Deyo
  • Dina Dublon
  • The Frances Lear Foundation
  • Martha Gallo
  • Kiki and David Gindler
  • Lily Safra
  • Spears & Imes LLP

  • Liv Ullmann

Major Sponsors

  • Annabelle Bexiga
  • Bloomberg
  • Natasha Boissier
  • Capco & Element22


    Katharine I. Crost
  • Elizabeth Learson Daniels
  • Abigail Disney
  • Ernst & Young LLP
  • Foundation for a Just Society

  • Mimi Frankel
  • E. Carol Hayles
  • ICAP Information Services Inc.
  • Elizabeth J. Keefer
  • Clay and Garrett Kirk
  • Chris McConnell
  • Microsoft
  • Rukshan Mistry and Jason Sheasby
  • PepsiCo
  • Katherine Renfrew
  • Susan F. Rice
  • Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP
  • Tides Foundation
  • TD Bank, America’s Most Convenient Bank
  • Helen Torelli and Rob Sedgwick
  • Sandra Sennett Tully


    Marissa C. Wesely and Frederick Hamerman


  • Sarabeth Abir
    Susan Stark Alberti
    Sherrell Andrews
  • Arnold & Porter LLP
  • Virginia Bauer
  • George Biddle
  • Susan Blaustein

  • Vera Blinken
  • Ann Borowiec
  • Steven and Joy Bunson
  • Dick Cashin
  • Elizabeth Colton
  • Sarah Costa and David L. Phillips
  • Pamela Craig
  • Mary S. Cross
  • Gerry Cunningham
  • Elizabeth B. Dater
  • Philip and Stephanie Diaz
  • Dr. Judith Diers
  • Terence Dougherty
  • Jodie Eastman
  • Diana Elghanayan
  • Gail Furman
  • W. George Grandison
  • Adele Gulfo, Mylan
  • Gundersen Foundation, David Bohonnon, Trustee
  • Barbara McIntyre Hack
  • Audrey and James Hutter
  • International Rescue Committee
  • Jurate Kazickas
  • Sandra K. Krause
  • Yong Kwok
  • Ruth Lazarus and Michael Feldberg
  • Neeti Madan
  • Ruchi Madan

  • Nina Magowan
  • Judith Mayotte

  • Laura Middleton
  • Virginia A. Millhiser
  • Leni D. Moore
  • Mary Moran
  • Holly Myers
  • Sarah O'Hagan
  • Jane T. Olson
  • Carmen O'Shea
  • Susan Patricof
  • Regina S. Peruggi
  • Stephanie J. Peters, Esq.
  • Sheila M. Platt
  • Jenny Price
  • Paula Price
  • Aref Rahman, Textual Analytics Solutions (TAS)
  • Richard Reeves
  • Faye Richardson
  • Ropes & Gray LLP
  • Sheri Sandler
  • John Shipley
  • Jean Kennedy Smith
  • Margaret Smith
  • Nancy Stark
  • Christine Wasserstein
  • Joella Werlin


  • AMG Foundation
    Linda Barnett
    Lori Bassman
    Emily Baugher, IBM
    Dale Bernstein
    Karen Berry
    Jewelle W. Bickford
    Jack Bode
    Nancy Brigstocke
    Dominique Bischoff Brown
    Glenda Burkhart
    Dale Buscher
    Dawn Calabia
    Robin Fray Carey
    Karen Chaplin
    Grace Cheung
    Susan Cohen
    Nuno Crisostomo
    Frances Kraljic Curran

    Lisa Dallmer


    Susan Danilow
  • Joan K. Davidson

  • Virginia Decker
  • Robert DeVecchi

  • Bertha M. Diaz
  • Theresa Diaz

  • Linda D'Onofrio, Patton Boggs LLP
  • Jacqueline Esquivel

  • Jo Ellen Finkel
  • Helen Forster, Managing Director, Liquidhub

  • Elissa Gretz Friedman, MD
  • Joan Gambro

  • Susan Geisenheimer
  • Valerie Gelb, The BarnYard Group

  • Dessa Glasser
  • Linda Gottlieb


    Sara Greenwood
  • Alan Guarino

  • Alexandra Guest
  • Susan Harris
  • Angelica Harter
  • Paula K. Hawkins
  • Lucile P. Herbert
  • Hirondelle USA
  • Mimi Hopgood
  • Carol Hymowitz
  • Morrene Hubbard Jacobs
  • Susan Jonas
  • Joan B. Kaplan
  • Karen Kaplowitz
  • Donna Katzin
  • Rupa Khetarapal
  • John Kocjan
  • Sarah Kovner
  • Ping Lee
  • Amy Leeds-Brag
  • Theano Lianidou
  • Patricia Long
  • Winston Lord
  • Betsy D. Matthes
  • Michael McCulley
  • Suzanne and Gary Mead
  • Ruth Messinger
  • Peggy Midha
  • Rena Nigam, Partner, Liquidhub
  • The O'Dwyer Group
  • Hilary Oran
  • Maureen Orth
  • Raj Patil, President & CEO, Liquidhub
  • Jenny Perlman
  • Hazel Reitz
  • Missie Rennie
  • Susan Rosenberg

  • Nancy and Miles Rubin
  • Angelica Z. Rudenstine
  • Ann M. Sarnoff
  • Kathleen P. Schuler

  • Gail Sheehy
  • Catherine Shimony
  • Marlene L. Shufro
  • Diane Sinti
  • Suzanne Slesin
  • Peter Spenser
  • Rose Styron
  • Estelle N. Tanner
  • Deborah Tolman
  • Helen Tsanos
  • Elizabeth Weinstock
  • Debbie Welch
  • Mary White
  • Marilyn Wilkie
  • Maria Zazzera