Women refugees leading change in humanitarian settings

Women and girls are hardest hit by conflict and disasters. Women are also often the first to respond to support their families and communities.

Despite this, women affected by crisis often have little or no influence over what kind of assistance they receive and how it is delivered. This is importantnot only because women have a fundamental right to be heard and have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, but because without their participation, humanitarian assistance often does not meet their needs. It can actually cause more harm than good by reinforcing gender inequality. 

Since 2018, CARE has been working to address gaps in the humanitarian system by piloting tools and approaches that support women’s voice and leadership by shifting power and resources directly to women in communities affected by crisis. 

The result of this work is the Women Lead in Emergencies approach (Women Lead)resources and tools to support women’s participation and leadership in crisis and improve the inclusivity, accountability and effectiveness of humanitarian response. This is done through tailored, context specific approaches to support the confidence, skills and knowledge of each Women Lead group.

Women Lead does not determine what ‘success’ looks like, but instead asks women to define the outcomes that they want to see. The Women Lead team then supports the women in achieving their goals. This means that women can choose to focus on what matters most to them, which helps ensure the program is most relevant and allows them to participate right from the start.  

For some Women Lead groups, this means focusing on strengthening the skills they feel are necessary for them to engage in community decision making, such as literacy or public speaking. Others will use their time to start small businesses to earn extra income, or address community-wide issues such as gender-based violence. Having the flexibility to focus on any of these areas means Women Lead groups can lay the foundations to meaningfully and confidently participate in community decision-making. 

Participants from Colombia, Niger and Uganda share their experiences of working with Women Lead and the different ways they are leading change when it comes to humanitarian assistance:  

Taking a stand against sexual and gender-based violence in Niger

Before working with the Women Lead in Emergencies program, Lami says she was shy and found speaking in public intimidating. She credits Women Lead with helping to overcome this. 

“I have received a lot of training through the Women Lead project that has allowed me to develop my leadership but also to overcome my shyness.” 

A woman with five children seated around her
Lami and a group of children. Rakiétou Hassane Mossi/CARE

Lami became president of her Women Lead group and was chosen to be part of a committee to protect women and girls. In the refugee camp where Lami lives, women and girl’s safety is often at risk. At one time, there were nightly cases of rape in households within the camp. Lami realized women in the community needed to organize to address this and keep themselves safe. 

“I was able to overcome my silence and I was the first to mobilize the women.” 

Addressing this issue was not straightforward and the women found that influencing powerholders was not easy. They went to the village chief, but they were ignored. Still, the group decided to find others to influence. They took the issue to law enforcement and were successful. 

“Our voices were heard by the authorities who agreed to patrol every night to prevent men from entering our houses…This was my greatest achievement: I was not afraid or slowed down by anyone. I spoke in public and in front of everyone in order to defend our rights.”

Overcoming trauma and leading conflict management in Uganda

Between July 2016 and 2020 there was an influx of over 880,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, the vast majority of whom were women and children. Harriet was one of these refugees. She was deeply affected by what she had experienced in South Sudan. 

“I used to think that whoever came to me was coming to fight or kill me…In July 2019, I joined the South Sudanese Women’s Association. When I joined the group, I realized there were many other traumatized people as well.”

A woman smiles as she holds a baby
Harriet. Norah Namono/CARE

Harriet quickly found herself elected as Vice-Chairwoman of the South Sudanese Women’s Association. When the Chairperson returned to South Sudan, Harriet took on the role, but she still lacked confidence in this leadership position: 

“I was elected as the Chairperson…but I had no idea how to lead. CARE came during that time and organized training on how to be a leader…I started to talk without fear.” 

With support and training from Women Lead in Emergencies, Harriet began to feel more comfortable taking the lead on issues that affected her community and began to mediate disputes between community members. People would come to her to resolve tensions within their households and issues impacting the broader community, such as resource ownership. 

“I can say the community has changed a lot through my leadership. There was a lot of tribalism which caused many fights here and I forwarded the issues to [humanitarian actors] who worked to address them. [Disputes over] firewood and land used to be a problem. However, I organized dialogues with the host communities, and they gave us land.”

Supporting women in business to build solidarity between migrants and host communities

While making the long walk from Venezuela to Colombia, Marisa experienced the stark reality of the journey taken by millions of Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse in their home country. She travelled with pregnant women, unaccompanied children and other highly vulnerable groups. They faced the constant threat of robbery and predatory human traffickers. And, with prejudice against migrants and refugees on the rise in Latin America due to COVID-19, Marisa knew that even in her place of refuge there could be risks of hostility. 

With support from Women Lead in Colombia, Marisa and her group members were able to ‘formalize’ the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, an organization that supports businesses and builds solidarity between migrants and host communities in the neighbourhood of Cristo Rey, Colombia. As a formal legal entity, the Association can now easily access funding and provide services to members of the community. 

“My power is to transform negative things into positive ones, to try not to stay in the tragedy, that is my philosophy. I always want to leave something good where I go.” 

A woman holds a dog in her store
Marisa. CARE Colombia

As Vice-President of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, that is exactly what Marisa has done.  

The neighbourhood of Cristo Rey is one of the most vulnerable in Pamplona, with a high concentration of migrants. The Association supports women to set up small businesses and revitalize the neighbourhood in ways that benefit everyone, both those who have been displaced and host communities. 

Marisa says this work has made her feel part of the community:

“When I talk to women, we realize that there are no borders, we are simply women, no matter where you are… you think and feel the same.” 

Lami, Harriet and Marisa’s experiences show the different challenges, needs and priorities faced by women in humanitarian settings around the worldand the importance of women’s leadership in all aspects of humanitarian response.

Support women like Lami, Harriet and Marisa in their leadership journeys.