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Community Contribution

Check Your Assumptions to Collaborate: What we're learning about women's leadership in emergencies

May 06, 2022
Tippi Creed-Waring
Halatu Benjamin in the Omugo Settlement in Northern Uganda.

Photo: Halatu Benjamin in the Omugo settement in Uganda.

Women have a human right to participate in public life and decision-making, including in emergencies; yet, women directly affected by crises are still excluded from most humanitarian responses and from public decision-making. CARE’s Women Lead in Emergencies (Women Lead) approach acknowledges that women in crisis know best what they need. Our role is to support them in defining their priorities and taking action. In the context of Women Lead, effective collaboration has meant suspending our own preconceptions of what outcomes we will see and meeting women where they are. A new report focuses on lessons emerging from piloting this approach in the Omugo refugee settlement in Uganda, and offers insight into what effective collaboration looks like.

The South Sudanese civil war began in 2013 and has led to the displacement of nearly one million South Sudanese in Uganda alone. Women and children make up 81 percent of the refugee population. With funding from Global Affairs Canada, Women Lead has been supporting women’s groups in the Omugo settlement since 2019. Our Omugo pilot has highlighted two important lessons.

Lesson 1: There are often pre-conditions for women’s participation.

Collaboration is central to the Women Lead approach: Women Lead works with groups of women and girls, rather than individuals, directly affected by crisis to build solidarity and collective influence over the decisions that affect their lives. It does this by seeking out existing women’s groups in the community, like refugee associations or faith-based groups, and inviting them to participate in the programme.

“We have to realize that we can do greater things if we’re united as a group. […] We need a change and to speak for our rights, because it is mostly women that are suffering.”  - Halatu Benjamin, Yoleta Group, Village 4, Omugo

Our assumption was that, as part of their action planning, women’s groups would identify activities directly related to their ability to engage effectively in community and humanitarian decision-making. For example: leadership and life skills training, networking with other women, access to information, provision of childcare or transport costs to enable them to attend meetings, and brokering access to humanitarian duty-bearers. However, the experience and decisions of the women’s groups in Omugo suggest that there are some foundational barriers that need to be tackled first or in conjunction with such activities:

  • Functional adult literacy: The women noted that being able to read, write and present themselves in English is an unofficial precondition for being able to participate meaningfully in community meetings and other decision-making spaces within the settlement.
  • Income generating activities: The women’s groups were also clear that with financial resources comes influence and power and, without them, they would not be taken seriously by their community or decision-makers such as government and humanitarian agencies.
  • Psychosocial support: The Rapid Gender Analysis on Power and Participation identified the need for psychosocial support for women in the community, and all the women’s groups noted the importance of this in supporting them to overcome their trauma and reduce negative coping mechanisms.

Lesson 2: It was important for the Women Lead model to adapt to women’s pace and choices.

Women Lead is an approach with five distinct, iterative components: Analyse; Reflect; Co-Create; Act; and Learn. The Co-Create component is where women’s groups identify their common goals, what activities and support will enable them to achieve these goals, and how they will spend the Women Lead budget allocation for their group’s activities. The lessons from Co-Create sessions highlight the importance of continuous learning and reflection in programme delivery. For instance, we assumed that:

  • the Co-Create phase would build directly on the Rapid Gender Analysis on Power and Participation and the Reflect sessions, and that;
  • Co-Create sessions with women’s groups would lead to a time-bound action plan and that this would be documented in some form.  

In practice, co-creation of action plans differed among groups, along with the extent to which groups found it helpful to stick closely to the set of activities and timings defined by the model. The time needed by the groups to reach the stage of developing action plans may vary and more time may be needed to introduce the concepts of women’s right to participate before progressing to the co-creation activities. Some groups looked for ‘quick wins’ like making improvements to the Women’s Centre where they meet or farming a piece of land together to produce food for their families and for sale. These activities helped them to build solidarity and trust before tackling larger goals that were more directly linked to women’s participation and leadership in decision-making. As such, any practitioner looking to implement the Women Lead approach will need to respond and adapt to the varying needs of the groups they work with.

The form that action planning has taken also evolved. Group members have started to journal their individual and group activities and are now also exploring the use of videos and voice messages to document actions taken as a group, again highlighting the need for flexibility and tailoring to the needs of specific groups.

‘’Before Women Lead in Emergencies, I was not in any position in the community. But through Women Lead I feel I can even manage to help my community out there. I can help women raise their voices.” - Halatu Benjamin

So far, CARE has piloted or is using the Women Lead model in Colombia, Mali, Niger, the Philippines, Tonga and Uganda. In 2022, this will be expanded to include Bangladesh, Ethiopia and South Sudan. It is being used in all types of emergency, from natural disasters to protracted crises, from conflict settings to global health pandemics, and as such offers rich opportunity for lesson learning and the potential to increase impact at scale.

In 2022, CARE will publish an independent, multi-country evaluation assessing the impact of the initiative across countries. This will offer valuable learning both for CARE and the humanitarian sector on the importance, feasibility and impact of increasing the power, voice and leadership of women in complex crises. Keep an eye out for the evaluation which will be published on Care Insights in Spring 2022.   

For more information

Read the full Learning Report.

Check out the Learning Brief, which highlights ways women in Omugo are leading in emergencies.  

Discover CARE’s new framework for Women’s Voice and Leadership.

Read more about how Halatu Benjamin’s is raising the voice of women in Omugo refugee settlement here.

Contact the CARE Women Lead Global Coordinators: Tam O’Neil, Senior Gender Advisor, CARE International UK ([email protected]) and Isadora Quay, Gender in Emergencies Coordinator, CARE International ([email protected]