In Uganda, refugee women’s leadership drives inclusive humanitarian action

19 August is World Humanitarian Day, an opportunity to honour the humanitarian community and the life-saving work they perform every day. This year’s theme, “it takes a village”, recognizes the importance of collective action in delivering humanitarian assistance—by professionals and volunteers, but also by crisis-affected people themselves.

When crises occur, women and girls disproportionately bear the impact. Their low participation in humanitarian response planning and decision making, however, limits their voices from being heard and their needs from being fully met. Empowering women to lead in crisis settings can help catalyse more robust humanitarian action that better addresses the needs of everyone.

Women of Bidibidi Refugee Settlement celebrate a win in the RWC elections held in February 2022. Photo: UN Women/Athanasius Oguti
Women of Bidibidi Refugee Settlement celebrate a win in the RWC elections held in February 2022. Photo: UN Women/Athanasius Oguti

Over the past several years, refugee settlements in two districts of Uganda have provided a real-world demonstration of this trend.

Though women and children make up 81 per cent of the nearly 1.53 million refugees in Uganda, refugee settlement leadership has historically lacked women’s representation. Cultural barriers, coupled with  limited knowledge on rights and access to education, kept women from participating in decision-making processes. 

In 2018, UN Women began providing trainings for the women and youth of Adjumani and Yumbe districts, which host 30.1 per cent of Uganda’s total refugee population. The trainings included instruction in literacy, numeracy, women’s rights, leadership and life skills development, public speaking, debating and radio presentation. The results were striking.

“Before I participated in the leadership training, I was a shy person. I could not speak up because of fear”, says Joy Aiba, a South Sudanese refugee living in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Yumbe District. Now, she feels empowered to make her voice heard within settlement leadership.

Ugandan refugee settlements are governed by Refugee Welfare Committees (RWCs), with committee members directly elected by the refugee community under the supervision of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). Elections of RWCs take place every two years. While the guidelines for RWCs provide for 30 per cent refugee representation, women had not been coming forth to run in the elections and take up leadership positions.

That’s changed since the trainings. “The leadership skills have enabled me to speak up for women in meetings”, Aiba says. “Right now, I am the RWC Chairperson for my village in Zone I. In Zone I and II, most leaders are now women”.

Aiba’s experience is echoed by other leadership training participants. “From the training we realized that as refugee women we actually have a right to contest any position on the RWC”, says Rose Aliyah, a South Sudanese refugee woman living in Pagirinya Settlement in Adjumani district. This gave me the courage to contest the position of Chairperson of RWC I in my village. My win encouraged more women to run for leadership”.

Refugee women learn participatory communication skills using video. Photo: UN Women
Refugee women learn participatory communication skills using video. Photo: UN Women

And they’ve been winning. In the districts of Yumbe and Adjumani, women’s representation on RWCs has increased from 10 per cent in 2017 to 48 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in 2022, according to data from the OPM.

Lily Anek Okumu, a refugee woman living in Pagirinya Settlement in Adjumani district, broke barriers when she competed against four male candidates for the highest office in refugee administration and management leadership. “Competing for this position made me feel that I am representing many women that fear to express themselves”, Anek says. “Most women don’t know they have a right to leadership and decision making”. Though she came in third, Anek’s run helped empower other women in Pagirinya Settlement to actively participate in leadership at all fronts.

“Women have emerged the best in this year’s RWC elections because of the support from UN Women”, says Draleru Josephine, Community Services Officer at Adjumani Refugee Desk. “With UN Women support, large scale campaigns and civic education were conducted, which raised awareness on the rights, roles and responsibilities of women”. The 2022 election saw more women competing for RWC positions beyond those of Vice Chairperson and Secretary, the two positions usually reserved for women.

With more refugee women taking on leadership roles in the settlements, women’s access to services has improved. They have been able to work together within their communities to identify the issues limiting their access to services and refer these issues to relevant authorities for follow up. Women have taken on leadership roles as translators, court interpreters and community mobilisers and facilitators; they serve on parent teacher committees, food distribution committees, village health committees and water management committees.

From now through 2025, UN Women aims to expand the leadership trainings to two more districts—Terego and Kyegegwa—with the goal of building the leadership capacity of 2,000 women leaders. A mentorship program will also benefit 340 women leaders at the subnational and local level.

As humanitarian crises continue to test our collective abilities to protect and care for one another, women’s leadership will remain central to our success. Refugee women are key drivers of effective, inclusive humanitarian action, and it’s up to all of us to ensure they have the resources and support they need.