Women leading in crisis: Reflections from Sudan and Uganda

By Tessa Bolton, Program Officer, CARE Canada

There is a power—not new, but rising. It is the power of women acting together, leading, in communities affected by crisis.

There is a power—not new, but rising. It is the power of women acting together, leading, in communities affected by crisis.

I last traveled to Sudan and Uganda in late 2019 to visit projects funded by Global Affairs Canada. My next trip in March 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic, and like most, I have been home-bound since then. But the experiences of and lessons learned from the women I met in late 2019 continue to inspire me.

In Sudan, travelling between the dusty villages and refugee and displacement camps of East Darfur—where CARE is providing emergency water, sanitation, nutrition, healthcare, and livelihoods support—I met Bakhita. Twenty-three years old and an out-of-camp refugee from South Sudan, Bakhita had brought the youngest of her six children, fourteen-month-old John, to CARE’s mobile health clinic in the village of Kamal for vaccinations. She had walked for an hour do so. As I talked with Bakhita, a nutrition specialist from the mobile health clinic came over. Concerned about John, the specialist asked Bakhita if he could perform a MUAC (Mid-Upper-Arm Circumference) assessment. Using a simple paper tester, the MUAC assessment quickly confirmed that John was in the red – severely acutely malnourished (SAM).

Inside CARE’s mobile clinic, John and Bakhita received high-calorie therapeutic food (Plumpy Nut paste), information, and follow-up appointments to ensure John gained enough weight. As a mother, Bakhita was viewed by the community as responsible for John’s nutrition, but because of circumstances had been unable to meet his needs. In an acute emergency, CARE stepped in with life-saving support.

This is emergency response.

Two days later and a long, bumpy drive across East Darfur, I met another memorable woman: Suad. Thirty years old and with eight children of her own, Suad had been supported, trained and incentivized by CARE to join the Abu Karinka village Mother’s Support Group, a collective of women trained to work in their communities to increase understanding and awareness of good practices for looking after young children. From breastfeeding to reducing childhood malnourishment to busting negative taboos, each woman works with fifteen pregnant women or new mothers at a time to support their community to adopt new, healthier practices.

Suad was proud of her role, saying: “It’s very important work. Now mothers are aware of how to take care of their child from birth up until they are five years old. (Because of her work) mothers know how to help prevent malnutrition.”

This is prevention.

A short walk across a stony courtyard to some mats laid out under wide trees, sixty women in vibrantly colourful scarves were huddled around shoebox-sized blue metal boxes, each emblazoned with a hand-painted Canadian flag. As I approached, they opened the boxes and beckoned me over to display their contents. What the boxes contained was cash. Lots and lots of cash.

These women were members of the Abu Karinka Village Savings and Loans (VSLA) group, established by CARE to support sustainable saving, business growth, and autonomy of crisis-affected Sudanese women. VSLA group members meet weekly, make shared contributions to savings pools, and decide collectively where to invest, loan, or use their shared resources – whether to pay for urgent medical treatment, to start shared businesses, or to buy school materials. In a context where women often don’t have access to money outside of their husbands or fathers, the savings group was providing an opportunity for sustainability and empowerment, even during a long-lasting humanitarian crisis.

“The VSLA empowers women by bringing them together,” one member told me. “Women are very strong now, more than before!”

This is empowerment.

With just a small amount of support and encouragement, women are recognizing their own collective power, and are demanding sustainable and collective change.

Tessa Bolton

Program Officer, CARE Canada

A week – and some hair-raising internal flights – later, I was several hundred miles south-east, and in an entirely different world. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees have been settled in the North West of Uganda, where CARE is working with communities to address shelter, health, and protection needs, and facilitating women’s empowerment initiatives to support to refugees living in these settlements.

In Omugo refugee settlement in Uganda, I came across the most inspirational group I have ever met: women refugees who are collectively angling for transformational change. Members of grassroots women’s groups supported by CARE’s Women Lead in Emergencies initiative, these women are working together to understand – and address – the systematic barriers that prevent women from becoming leaders in the humanitarian context, and from participating in the decisions which affect their lives.

Barriers ranging from illiteracy to gender based violence to lack of confidence are identified, dissected and analyzed. Women’s groups are empowered to design and implement activities that they believe will help overcome these barriers. For example,  Functional Adult Learning classes that are reaching hundreds of women of all ages with basic literacy skills, investments in local businesses,  leadership training and civic education,  efforts to address sexual and reproductive health barriers (from more sex education to better menstrual health management), and confidence-building Women’s Conferences are having a real and lasting impact.

These impacts are not only present in women’s individual skills and confidence levels, but in the community at large. One group of women worked together to organize a peaceful sit-down strike directly resulting in food distribution being relocated ten kilometres closer to the community that needed it. Other groups took the first steps towards promoting peacebuilding between previously warring tribes. With just a small amount of support and encouragement, women are recognizing their own collective power, and are demanding sustainable and collective change.

“Women leaders give us all inspiration to stand amongst men as equals,” one participant said.

This is transformation.

Inspirational women are a force unto themselves, and must be supported. But they also can’t stand alone. In Sudan and Uganda, I saw men stand up to support women. In Sudan, men are being trained in Infant and Young Child Feeding to challenge social norms that perceive this as a women’s responsibility to bear alone. In Uganda, at the women’s request, CARE rolled out the Role Model Men and Boys approach alongside Women Lead in Emergencies to prevent backlash and add legitimacy. This approach works with men to remove negative gender perceptions, promote more equal relationships, and reflect on what it means to promote positive masculinity. Beyond preventing backlash, the involvement of men in Uganda has contributed directly to women’s successes, from co-drafting memos to leaders, to counselling male perpetrators of domestic violence, to cheering for women candidates during mock election campaigns. Men have proved to be a crucial component in the empowerment of women and the promotion of women leaders in the humanitarian context.

As I met with women in CARE’s newly-constructed Women’s Center in Omugo, some Role Model Men sat nearby. One of them, bouncing a baby on his knee, explained to me how he had learned that   household chores were a shared responsibility. By supporting his wife, he was proudly acting as a role model for other men, and challenging traditional norms which restrict women’s freedom.

This is solidarity.

The humanitarian community has committed to supporting women’s groups and women’s rights organizations, to funding gender equality programs, and to empowering women as participants and leaders in humanitarian responses. CARE’s new report, Time for a Better Bargain: How the Aid  System Shortchanges Women and Girls in Crisis shows that across the board, we are failing to meet these commitments. Funding to women’s groups is woefully insufficient, women’s empowerment is consistently deprioritized, and leadership positions across humanitarian contexts are overwhelmingly held by men.

And yet in refugee settlements in Uganda, in village savings groups in crisis-hit communities in Sudan, women are standing up and showing us how it’s done. They are pioneering leadership in contexts where there is much at risk. In the absence of global action, they are demonstrating how women – particularly women, plural; women, together – have a rising power. They are inspiring us, showing us their potential, demanding that their voices are heard.

This is leadership.

All we have to do is listen.

CARE is calling on donors, UN agencies and peers to take concrete action to ensure women, girls and women's organization's are equitably represented and have their voices heard in humanitarian crises. Because the world is better when she leads too.