Empowering refugees to empower others

By Megan Nobert, CARE Canada

Northern Zambia, along the Congolese border, is a stunning place to find oneself. The water on Lake Mweru ripples a deep dark blue. The rust-coloured earth contrasts with the saturated green of the landscape. Sugarcane grows along the road, in a land overflowing with fruit and fish.

It should be a tourist destination, not the new home for more than 15,000 refugees, who have fled increasing violence across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite its natural beauty, northern Zambia is not an easy move or change in life for these refuges, most of whom fled with little to nothing on their backs. The population is young: Approximately 60 per cent of the refugees are under 18 years of age. Children run everywhere, enormous smiles on their faces despite the impossible situation facing their families.

Even in the face of absolute hardship, however, there are opportunities. We know that helping refugees find a new purpose in their changed lives can have a significantly positive impact on them and on overall camp life. Sometimes this means building skills or developing livelihoods programming. It can also mean educating children and offering community centres where they can grow in other ways.

In the case of CARE though, we are creating and providing purpose through a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Task Force, which builds awareness of SGBV among the refugee population and offers support to survivors and their families. As our members attest: “Education and sensitization is the impact of our work on the SGBV Task Force. People are changing their behaviour.”

Our SGBV Task Force has been given the training and tools necessary to sensitize the community about the importance of eliminating sexual and gender-based violence. They understand how to receive and respond to reports. They serve as an example and offer peer-to-peer support to their neighbours. They are an invaluable cornerstone to CARE’s work with the refugee population, and without them we could not be successful.

When speaking with the SGBV Task Force members, refugees here express the value the task force has brought to their lives, as well as to the broader refugee community.

Kaimba, for example, describes how CARE has helped her change her home life and be a model in her community. It is through our work together that she has learned more constructive ways of interacting with her husband, and he has learned the same skills; as her husband is a pastor he is increasingly preaching these skills to their congregants. She has learned that she deserves to be treated with kindness and respect, something she now tells her children and all those around her.

James tells us about how appreciated the work is, and how, in a just a few months of the task force’s work, incidents of SGBV have already declined. While this may still just be anecdotal, as we will never know the full extent of SGBV cases in the camp due to the shame and stigma the problem still carries, despite our best efforts, it was an expression echoed by every member of the SGBV Task Force we spoke with. They felt the impact of their work with CARE and could see its tangible benefits in their community.

The impact of CARE and the SGBV Task Force is perhaps best told by Kabumna, who points out the similarities between the task force and a health clinic. You go to a doctor when you are sick, and you go to the SGBV Task Force when you need other kinds of help. It’s a beautiful comparison reflecting the passion of the task force members.

This may just be one small refugee camp, and one small SGBV Task Force, but it shows how behaviour change can and does happen, even in difficult emergency situations. When we involve those directly affected by problems when developing solutions, we can and will create lasting behaviour change.

Seeing this play on the ground is inspiring, and it renews faith in our work. There are few greater privileges in the humanitarian community than sitting alongside our on-the-ground colleagues as they make a tangible difference in the lives of people and communities.

Learn more about how CARE is supporting refugees, and how you can too.