15 Minutes on Women Leading in Emergencies

Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World-where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it for the better. My name is Lama Alsafi and I’m the host of this podcast. In this episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World we’re marking World Humanitarian Day by speaking with Caroline Aol, CARE Uganda‘s interim manager for the project where the Women Lead in Emergencies interventions are undertaken, and she is also CARE Uganda’s Women Lead in Emergencies specialist. Caroline joins us remotely from CARE in Uganda today. Caroline. It’s wonderful to have the chance to speak with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Caroline Aol (00:51): Thank you, Lama.

Lama Alsafi (00:52): Thank you. Well, Caroline, we’ll dive right into the questions if we may. Can you share with our listeners please what inspired you to get involved in humanitarian work?

Caroline Aol (01:01): Okay, thank you Lama. I started my humanitarian work close to 15 years ago, right after my university, and I come from an environment that was marred by conflict in Northern Uganda. And I’ve seen my relatives live through the internal displaced camps. So for me, I struggled to see a change in terms of how we can move away from conflict to a more enabling environment where all women, girls, boys, and men can be peacefully. So for that, it’s enabled me to study community psychology that has put me in the humanitarian field where I can work directly with persons in conflict.

Lama Alsafi (01:47): Caroline can you explain what Women Lead in Emergencies is for our listeners? And what’s your role in this project?

Caroline Aol (01:54): Women Lead in Emergencies are a model of intervention developed by CARE to support women and girls groups to take leadership in responding to the crisis that affects them and their communities by promoting inclusive, active participation and the leadership of women in communities at the forefront of crisis. This model prepares women and girls with life skills to respond to crisis and reducing their vulnerabilities. Oftentimes women directly affected by crisis are still excluded from humanitarian responses and from public decision-making spaces. As such, when women’s voices are not heard, women’s rights and needs are often not adequately met, and an emergency response can further reinforce inequalities that perpetuate vulnerabilities insecurity, poverty and more non-inclusive interventions. My role is to empower women and girls’ groups with skills to overcome their barriers to lead and encourage meaningfully participate in an enabling environment. And the groups that we empower do empower other groups to ensure learning is cascaded to the grassroots as a more sustainable approach.

Lama Alsafi (03:06): How are you seeing women and girls lead in their communities when it comes to emergency response? And then how does this involvement of women and girls, how does it carry over into the longer term?

Caroline Aol (03:17): So we’ve undertaken rapid gender analyses and the findings from this analyses shows the impact of crisis on women’s equal participation and their leadership in the community and humanitarian decision-making and action. Participating women and girls groups themselves define what participation and leadership means for them in their context, what their goals are participating in or leading humanitarian action, and what needs to change for them to exercise their right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. The women-led intervention supports women to reflect on these issues or barriers as well as prevailing opportunities, where they can analyze these together with other women and girls and co-create actions or interventions to address these barriers. The groups participate in action learning as they reflect on what is working, what is workable and why, including how they can scale the workable approach to realize a bigger impact while identifying the allies for support to adapt their change strategies.

Caroline Aol (04:23): We have seen women challenge the status quo in humanitarian responses. One of the actions developed by one of the women’s groups sought community support to bring the food distribution closer to their village that helped benefit the community as a whole. Now, how does the involvement of women and girls in emergency response carry over into the longer term? The continued empowerment of women and girls and creating an enabling environment through other women and men of influence increases their confidence to lead and action their aspirations. Eventually their voices are heard and interventions are inclusive of their needs and vulnerabilities are eventually addressed.

Lama Alsafi (05:08): Thank you Caroline. What are the greatest challenges you’re seeing in your work, and then what are the greatest opportunities or rewards?

Caroline Aol (05:14): Thank you, Lama. At the start of the pilot-Women Lead in Arua, West Nile-the biggest challenges that we did interface with were breaking through the negative cultural practices that still support stifling women’s voices. We also did approach men’s resistance to women’s participation in civic leadership activities. We also experienced overwhelming domestic and reproductive burden on women, which prevented them from taking up interactions with the community or even going for community meetings or engagements that really do involve their decisions. And also the impacts of COVID-19 has caused further restrictions that the women were really exposed to, including the economic strike where they have to continue to support their families. And also another challenge that I see is the intentional lack of inclusion of women in decision making spaces by us humanitarian workers has also further exacerbated breaking through the Women Lead or bringing women to the table discussions.

Caroline Aol (06:37): So these are still some of the challenges that we’re still undergo, but we continue to advocate for them. Looking at the greatest rewards that we have been able to gain over time since 2019, we’ve managed to get men to work with us, working with men to address negative hegemonic masculinities that perpetrate violence against women and girls; addressing women and girls’ literacy through functional adult literacy learning that has boosted their confidence and aspirations to meaningfully participate in community actions and critical decision-making spaces. And this is one of those that the basis that helps to urge women to go forward, especially literate women. And also the other rewards include increased number of women vying for leadership positions in the mainstream formal leadership structures in the refugee settlements. We also have the CBF (Community Based Facilitators) structures in the community where we’re seeing more women being involved in leadership, in recruitment into these positions, taking up group leadership, being the leader within the water committee, the village savings and loan association among others. And for me those are some of the rewards.

Caroline Aol (07:56): Also we have managed to, through this intervention, support women to address conflict-related psychological distress that initially did impede their participation. And I believe this is still one of those, impediments across the refugee settlements. Also we’re able to see an increased inter-group collaboration where actually the learning were developed across different groups, initially groups who are in isolation or working in silos. But now we see a lot of that inter-group interaction and learning from the different cultures and tribes. And that helps to increase collaboration across the refugee settlement. We’ve also been able to undertake women’s conferences that has increased networking, increased learning, peaceful coexistence with women who are have in common needs and impediments and how they can overcome this collectively while involving partners as well as agencies in the humanitarian spaces.

Caroline Aol (09:10): Also one of the rewards is that COVID-19 set the stage for women to take on ad hoc leadership positions, as well as prevention interventions for their communities, such as making liquid soap as a strive to prevent COVID-19; participating in sensitization sessions; counseling other women and GBV survivors; advocating for the reduction of teenage pregnancy as part of the COVID-19 pandemic effects. And also finally, the Women Lead component, one of the rewards is through this model, it helps you to tailor and suit to fit interventions within the context with which the program is being implemented. So it’s not a one size fits all, but it’s a model that helps you to work with the context that you’re in to come out with programs that will work for the women in that location.

Lama Alsafi (10:12): Thank you Caroline. Do you have a message for the Canadian public or Canadian policymakers? What would you like them to know about the work that you’re doing?

Caroline Aol (10:19): The pilot that we started in 2019 was through funding from the Canadian government, Global Affairs Canada, and to date 2021, Global Affairs Canada continues to support Women Lead interventions. And we have seen enormous change in the lives of women and girls with several successes to attribute that to. Policy makers around the world should continue to advocate for the intentional inclusion of the voices and decisions of marginalized groups, especially women and girls around the world, especially those caught up in crisis to participate in designing interventions that best suits them and their contexts. This reduces vulnerabilities and increases agile responses from resilient women, girls, men, and boys in their communities. Overall, this increases co-created actions that reduce dependency and the up-bottom approach that most humanitarian workers are used to, but rather adopt the bottom-up approach that helps to make more sensitive interventions that bring in meaningful use of the funds and the grants that we receive, as well as setting the global stage for the involvement of women’s voices all over.

Lama Alsafi (11:46): How can our listeners support humanitarian work and empower women to lead in emergencies?

Caroline Aol (11:52): Yeah, the listeners can continue to spread the word and also the learning about women’s leadership in emergencies especially, and to keep the fire burning because when we do involve more women and girls in these interventions at an early stage, we are setting the stage for the global involvement, global inclusion of women into leadership positions globally. And it doesn’t only stop at the humanitarian level. It doesn’t stop at the refugee context. It goes across in development contexts, even in contexts where there is no conflict. We have to start now. We have to involve women and girls, consider their decisions, seek and consult them and how best we can work together. Also, I would like to add that when we do not know about what’s happening in the humanitarian work, it easily goes under the carpet. So the intentional awareness of the needs of women and girls, as well as boys and men, in humanitarian work or in humanitarian contexts, and why we need to work with the refugees, the internally displaced persons, the persons caught up in natural disasters and conflict related emergencies. They are not lost people. It’s not like they have lost everything. They still have a resilience, a willpower. So we can do our part. We can rethink our interventions, redesign our interventions, and also support them because we cannot do the work alone. We have to work together with these persons so that we can be able to realize more durable solutions and lasting change in the communities. And also, from these life skills that they will be able to learn, they’ll be able to take on to their countries where they come from, as well as create communities that are more resilient and communities that are more inclusive and open to supporting women and men, girls, and boys. And of course finally the intentional support of women and girls across programs, not only in Women Lead in Emergencies, but involving and embedding women to lead across programs.

Lama Alsafi (14:26): Thank you Caroline. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today about the incredible power of women’s leadership in emergency contexts around the world.

Caroline Aol (14:34): Thank you, Lama. I would like to also thank the team in Uganda, the Women Lead team in Uganda in Arua in Western Uganda, as well as the management of CARE Uganda for supporting this intervention, for striving to have the voices of women involved across the programs. And also I would like to send special thanks to the global Women Lead team who continue to strive for a change for learning, as well as the funders, Global Affairs Canada. Thank you so much for the support.

Lama Alsafi (15:16): Thank you Caroline. Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to all of you for tuning in. You can stay up to date on the latest episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World by following us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and by visiting care.ca/podcasts.