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“We need to start thinking of displacement situations as potential opportunities”

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements shares insights on the resilience of women

“The vast majority of refugees are women and children, and there is something incredibly special about women helping other women” – Kelly T. Clements

When Kelly T. Clements took the floor to address female philanthropists at a lunch hosted by the Leading Women Fund last month, the room fell silent. There are few people in the world with greater insight and knowledge into refugee issues than this highly-informed, charismatic woman, who became UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in 2015, and has since travelled the world to advocate for refugees.

On her first trip to Australia, Deputy High Commissioner Clements spoke candidly about the particular importance of supporting displaced women and children – and the role of the Leading Women Fund in providing cash assistance and social connection.

“Your program here in Australia, known as the Leading Women Fund, is one I very much admire,” she said. “In three years, the Fund helped more than 200 families in female-headed households.”

Deputy High Commissioner Clements discussed the benefits of empowering women through cash assistance and placing refugee women at the heart of decision-making at every level – in their families, in their communities and as partners in UNHCR’s work.

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UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements at the Leading Women Fund's event in Sydney. Australia for UNHCR.

“Women are no longer aid recipients. They have agency. They are decision makers that are at the centre of our work and shape how we protect and aid," she said.

The Deputy High Commissioner told stories of meeting refugee women – and shared their messages of gratitude for supporters.

“Part of my role is to travel to places like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Bangladesh. I am proud, time and time again to witness the impact of UNHCR’s work – the highlight of any mission is the time I am able to spend with refugees, displaced people and those who are living through wars and other hardships,” she said.

“On my first day in Moldova earlier this year, I met a group of Ukrainian refugee women, mostly from Odessa, who had fled the shelling. These women were incredibly grateful to UNHCR for the support we provide – whether it’s a place to sleep, legal support, counselling, or cash assistance to cover basic needs.”

Meanwhile, in countries such as Jordan, where over one million Syrians have settled, UNHCR works hard to create opportunities for refugees to develop economic resilience. Initiatives include vocational training programs and support for women starting small businesses.

“We need to start thinking of displacement situations as potential opportunities rather than just as challenges,” Clements observed. “About 40% of refugees are under 18, and hundreds of thousands are born as refugees each year. And we need to avoid losing generations all over the world, and not to let this potential go to waste.”