The Power of Women’s Leadership in Humanitarian Crises: Marking World Refugee Day

Participants of the Women Lead in Emergencies project in Kyangwali Refugee settlement, Kikuube, Uganda.
Photo Credit: Ekinu Robert/CARE

By Barbara Grantham, President and CEO, CARE Canada

For the first time in history, the number of displaced people worldwide has surpassed 100 million people, according to recent data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This staggering figure is the result of the Ukraine war, the looming food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and ongoing conflict in countries including Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Crises always affect the most vulnerable the hardest. Women and children make up over 50 per cent of refugees globally, but they are very rarely the decision-makers when it comes to issues that affect them. In many humanitarian contexts, women’s voices go unheard, leading to decision-making that does not consider the specific needs of women and girls. They are more likely to experience gender-based and sexual violence, more likely to eat last or least when food is scarce and are often not or under-represented in decision-making spaces. As primary caregivers and providers in emergency situations, it is crucial for women’s voices and leadership to be supported and advanced.

What if women in refugee camps are involved in decision making and leadership in emergency situations?

The Omugo settlement in the West Nile region of Uganda is part of CARE’s Women Lead in Emergencies initiative, working with members of community women’s groups to understand and address systematic barriers preventing women from becoming leaders. It houses more than 880,000 South Sudanese refugees who arrived over the past seven years, 82 per cent of whom are women and children. The camp offers many examples of what women’s leadership in emergency contexts can accomplish.

This project has given me the opportunity to learn about some amazing women living in the Omugo settlement like Ayite F, one of the members of the Yoleta women’s group who remembers thinking that women were not supposed to sit on chairs or eat certain foods when she arrived at the Omugo settlement. She was excited to learn leadership and business skills and gained a lot of knowledge and power to become confident to speak up in front of people. Joining this women-led group has made it possible for her to become a leader in her community.

Another amazing woman is Huda S., Secretary for Environment at one of the camps in the settlement. Her leadership role has allowed her to attend and participate in very important meetings in her community. Together with other leaders and the elderly, she participated in meetings to decide on where and how services are best implemented.

When we give women a seat at the table, we have a better chance of saving lives, promoting dignity and wellbeing, and championing equal gender relations. When we give women a seat at the table, everyone has a better life.

Together with local women’s groups, CARE and its partners are identifying barriers to women’s leadership in emergencies – including the restrictive social and gender norms of traditional decision-makers, men’s concerns about the impact on other duties if a woman is active outside the house, women’s lack of information and confidence to speak out in public, and existing leadership practices leading to gender bias in favour of men.

Empowering women and dismantling gender bias should involve everyone in the community. In the Omugo settlement, the “role model” training helped men and boys to challenge gender social norms, reinforce women’s voices in the community, and serve as allies for women in challenging situations. These activities led to significant changes. Men started supporting women with domestic chores and childcare, as well as including them in decision-making and participation in community meetings.

Overcoming social norms and values takes time. The story of Abdallah A. highlights that, as he never helped his wife at home in domestic chores. He was even violent to his family members before becoming a role model man. This made him realize that his previous actions were wrong and started working together with his family and now has a happy and healthy family.

Change takes time. It involves many small, individual actions that create a significant impact. Initiatives like CARE’s Women Lead in Emergencies project in the Omugo settlement are a key step in ensuring refugees and displaced people are heard, their needs are met, and they can lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.