Don’t plan for us, plan with us: the power of women’s leadership in emergencies

by 02nd Feb 2021
VSLA training, Women Lead in Emergencies, West Nile VSLA training, Women Lead in Emergencies, West Nile

Women and girls are the hardest hit by conflict and disasters but often have little or no say in the design and delivery of humanitarian aid. CARE’s Women Lead in Emergencies approach is the first practical toolkit for frontline humanitarians to support women to take the lead in responding to crises that directly affect them and their communities. Below are some of the lessons we have learned piloting this approach with women’s groups in the Omugo refugee settlement in the West Nile in Uganda. 

Women are leading in emergencies in ways we couldn’t have imagined

The grassroots women’s groups we work with have collectively identified priorities and taken action to increase their engagement in their communities and with humanitarian actors, including:

  • Organising Women’s Conferences to build networks, solidarity and influence: The South Sudanese Refugee Women’s Association and CARE organised two Women’s Conferences bringing together women’s groups from different ethnic groups, men in the community, government representatives and humanitarian agencies to discuss issues that matter to them.
  • Holding humanitarian actors to account: At the first conference, the issue was raised that some women had to trek nearly 10km to the nearest food distribution point. When no action was taken, the Yoleta women’s group collaborated with male leaders to organise a peaceful strike, prompting a direct dialogue with humanitarian agencies and persuading them to move the distribution point closer to the community.
  • Raising awareness of women’s rights: The groups organised a Women’s Forum with the district police focal person during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence and, on International Women’s Day, participated in a panel of refugee women organised by the UN and Office of the Prime Minister on “I am generation equality: realizing women’s rights.”
  • Peacebuilding and reconciliation: Following the first Women’s Conference, the South Sudanese Women’s Group called a meeting with their cultural leaders and elected representatives to encourage dialogue between Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups. Their leaders are exploring how to take their suggestions forward with support of the Office of the Prime Minister.
  • Standing for election to the Refugee Welfare Council: Members of the women’s groups intend to stand for the Refugee Welfare Council, including for Chair/Vice-Chair positions that are commonly seen as “male roles”. Women have been preparing their candidacies and practicing campaigning publicly, including during the second Women’s Conference.

“If you elect me as Chairperson, I will ensure that the organizations responsible for health, water and schools bring these services closer to our people… I will make sure the cultural leaders involve, listen and take into consideration the decisions of women and above all I will make sure all the women are educated enough to know how to read and write.” - Tereza Nyakum, candidate for Refugee Welfare Council Chairperson

How are women overcoming the barriers to their participation?

The Women Lead approach asks women how they want to participate in humanitarian action, what the barriers are and what support CARE and partners can provide to overcome them.

  • Building on a Rapid Gender Analysis on Power and Participation, the Women Lead approach supports women’s groups to reflect on the barriers to and opportunities for their meaningful participation in community decision-making and humanitarian response, and to co-create action plans.
  • VSLA and business skills training was prioritised by all of the women’s groups because lack of livelihood opportunities and limited control over household finances are significant barriers to their participation in community activities and decision-making outside the home.
  • Adult literacy classes were also prioritised because the ability to read and write basic English is important to women’s confidence and ability to participate in community meetings and other public forums. The women’s groups also opened this training up to other women and, importantly, men in the community to spread goodwill and reduce the risk of backlash.
  • CARE’s Role Model Men activities were extended to Omugo – with women's groups selecting which men should participate – because the support of male relatives and leaders enables women’s participation by breaking down patriarchal barriers, and reducing the risk of gender-based violence from backlash against women engaging in activities outside the home.
  • The Women Lead approach increases women’s confidence and collective action: at the end of the pilot, 91% of women – more than double the percentage at the baseline – said they are confident in their own negotiation and communication skills. 92% of women – more than three times as many – say they can work with other women to solve problems.

Women were able to respond to COVID-19 quickly when others couldn’t

While COVID-19 restrictions have created new challenges, the women’s groups are actively participating in the response to the new crisis:

  • Protecting women: One of the women’s groups adapted their business to make face masks which were then purchased by CARE and distributed to women who needed them to access GBV and sexual and reproductive health services safely.
  • Responding to the “shadow pandemic: women’s groups and Role Model Men were able to respond to an increase in gender-based violence, supporting survivors while many service providers were unable to access refugee settlements due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Addressing soaring rates of adolescent pregnancy: CARE has started working with a new girls’ group in Omugo in response to a spike in teen pregnancies attributed to school closures, suspended support measures and negative coping mechanisms due to COVID-19. The existing Women Lead groups are playing a key role in mentoring the new group.

For more information

Read the Learning Brief
Discover CARE’s new framework for Women’s Voice and Leadership.

This blog was authored by Rebecca Wilton with the support of Caroline Aol, Grace Namukose (both CARE Uganda), Tam O'Neil (CARE UK) and Tessa Bolton (CARE Canada), and special thanks to the women’s groups in Omugo and Global Affairs Canada, who made this pilot possible.

Rebecca Wilton

As Knowledge Management & Communications Officer at CARE International UK, I provide strategic communications support to CARE global technical teams, including Women’s Economic Justice, Inclusive Governance and Emergency Shelter. I focus on drawing out and sharing insights from CARE’s programming to improve impact. I have a particular interest in how we adapt our approaches in humanitarian settings.

Prior to joining CARE, I worked in creative communications agencies, managing advocacy and social behavioural change campaigns on issues including HIV, nutrition, family planning and tackling stigma and discrimination towards LGBT people and sex workers.

I hold a BA in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford.

One good thing I’ve read

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, How Change Happens by Cass Sunstein draws on behavioural economics, psychology and other fields to explore how social change happens – including the crucial role of social norms.

Email: Rwilton@careinternational.org

Twitter: @becky_wilton