Promoting Inequality: Gender-Based Discrimination in UNRWA’s Approach to Palestine Refugee Status


Cervenak, Christine M. 1994. “Promoting Inequality: Gender-Based Discrimination in UNRWA’s Approach to Palestine Refugee Status.” Human Rights Quarterly 16 (2): 300-74.

Author: Christine M. Cervenak


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), an influential body with the power to regulate access to health and social services, has established a patrilineal model for establishing refugee status. Palestinian refugee women who marry non-refugees may maintain their status, but their children cannot be considered as refugees and all family members are ineligible for most UNRWA benefits. In contrast, refugee men who marry non-refugees may pass on refugee status to their children and the family is eligible for UNRWA services, even if they are not needed. In addition to medical and social welfare benefits, UNRWA refugee status confers the right to residence in Lebanon which is not available to stateless Palestinians. Of concern is the perpetuation of gender discrimination if the UNRWA definition of Palestinian refugees forms the basis of a comprehensive peace settlement. Moreover, there are legal concerns as to whether UNRWA's standard violates international human rights codes, including those established by the UN. UNRWA apparently justifies its gender discrimination on the basis of the assumption that refugee women married to non-refugee men will follow their husbands; as in Arab culture, the system is structured around the male head of the family. The emerging Palestinian women's movement is espousing an alternate model based on the ideals of gender equality outlined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women adopted by the UN in 1979. The UNRWA has justified its standard on the grounds of budgetary limitations. More appropriate would be restrictions on assistance to those who are not in need and an extension of services to non-refugees without other sources of access to essential services. Attention to UNRWA's discriminatory policies is essential at this time since the infrastructure of the future Palestinian state is being developed.

Topics: Displacement & Migration, Refugees, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Humanitarian Assistance, International Organizations Regions: MENA, Asia, Middle East Countries: Palestine / Occupied Palestinian Territories

Year: 1994

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