How Refugee Women and Girls Lead

 by Faridah Naimana, Intern, Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls

Kakuma Refugee Camp based in Kenya serves refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries due to war or persecution and is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Life in the semi-arid desert environment of Kakuma is rather challenging. It navigates dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. To address such challenges, the UNHCR and other organizations introduced a leadership system where refugees lead their own people because they understand their fellow refugees and live in the same communities. Although the leadership structure was established in order for both men and women to lead, due to cultural beliefs and norms like gender roles, the community assumes that women lack potential to lead and thus leave them behind on decision making issues.

In Kakuma, women know the problems that families and communities face, their leadership makes a difference and supports the development of the people around them. In the hopes to share the story of women who serve as confident role models in their community and society, I interviewed Gloria, who is a security head in her community. She is married with one child and moved into the camp alone without her parents. She has lived in the camp since 2013.

Here, I share her story and our insightful conversation about women’s leadership.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU WORKED AS A SECURITY IN YOUR COMMUNITY?

I think it’s been three years since working under Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) as a block leader.

WHAT DOES LEADERSHIP LOOK LIKE TO YOU?

I would say that leadership looks like standing up for other people and being a good listener. Many people are facing so many problems in the community and thus as a leader being a good problem solver is important. People will always want someone who is humble, caring and loving to be their leader.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO BE A FEMALE SECURITY IN YOUR COMMUNITY?

There was great need for a security personnel in my area. When the election time came, I noticed that only men were standing up. That is when I decided that now it’s time for me to stand in this position. This turned out to be a very big problem since not only did people from my block, but others were not able to accept the truth that a woman was taking this position. This position comes up with many responsibilities which many people think women cannot handle it. Including;

  • Waking up at night to call for an ambulance for emergency medical cases.
  • Solving community conflicts.
  • Reporting violent crimes to the police.
  • Holding and attending meetings with the community and the RAS.

Due to discrimination and tribalism in our zone, I saw it as high time to fight for the rights of the oppressed. When non-food items were distributed to the community for people in need, there was a lot of corruption. People gave items only to the people they knew and that is when I realized something needed to be done. And yes, here I am now. Standing up for people’s rights. I also saw that being in this position was one way that I could solve and discuss challenges that the people were facing and advocate to the concerned organizations.

WHAT KEEPS YOU MOTIVATED?

I was not inspired by anyone but by the problems that people where facing in the community. This pushed me so much. If other women are afraid to face this and help, then I stood up strongly and become a security in my community. I am motivated by the few people in the community who truly believe in me and support me and my ability to make a difference.

HOW DID YOUR FAMILY OR COMMUNITY REACT WHEN YOU BECAME A SECURITY?

At first it was very hard for them to accept a female security, believing that the responsibility of a security is too much for a woman to handle. Now since they’ve seen that I am doing fine in this position, they have come a long. My family supports me and are always there for me when I need them and give me advice. Due to the different nationalities on the camp, some people didn’t appreciate that I was becoming the security over their own people.

HOW DO YOU THINK GIRLS AND WOMEN SHOULD BE SUPPORTED IN ORDER TO GET INTO LEADERSHIP ROLES AND REMAIN IN THOSE ROLES?

Culture and religion are the biggest factors that have belittled women and girls in taking on such roles. We should overcome these norms and beliefs that hinder them by educating and involving parents, elders and religious leaders in building awareness on the importance of leadership of both women and men. I also think UNHCR and other NGOs should create more leadership positions that will inspire and create more motivational activities for women and girls in leadership to serve as role models.

WHAT CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES ARE GIRLS AND WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP FACING IN THE WORK PLACE AND COMMUNITY?

Gender normative ideals due to culture, tribalism, religion, and discrimination on the camp is a challenge. UNHCR and NGOs, must take action in order to support and be inclusive of women’s leadership in the refugee camp by giving them equal opportunities. Women will then have the space to be creative, innovative and take on leadership positions in all sectors, political, organizational or communal. They will be able to use these experiences into finding more opportunities that are presented on their way and thus building their confidence.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF THAT YOU’VE BEEN ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH AS A SECURITY IN YOUR COMMUNITY?

All that I have accomplished has not only been me alone but along with other leaders. I got more support from other block leaders like the chairpersons, zonal leaders and even from the youth leaders. I would say that the following highlights is what we’ve accomplished as leaders of my block since I joined into the leadership line.

  • My leadership as a security has led to greater motivation and better results through empowering more women to stand up for such leadership positions in our community.
  • Encouraging women to get involved in more capacity building activities has brought a great impact to women in my community thus them being self-reliant.
  • Due to our leadership as women in the community, it has brought more women decision making power and new strategies on how we can make our community a better place for our fellow women and girls.
  • Being in support of UNHCR and other NGOs, we have been able to present our case and advocated for policies being introduced that support women’s request for work-family balance.
  • Empowering mothers to become more engaged in school-level education and decision making. Providing skills and confidence to girls so that they may be able to fight for their rights and be leaders.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO WOMEN AND GIRLS WHO WOULD WANT TO BE LEADERS?

Women should not be ashamed but encouraged to go for what they want. I would like to end with this quote that inspires my leadership today. “Outstanding leaders go out of the way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish “, Sam Walton.

Faridah came into the Kakuma Refugee Camp in 2005. She is the first child in her family of five and is a mother to one child. Faridah is a BA graduate in Healthcare Management with a concentration in Global Perspective at Southern New Hampshire University. She also has a diploma in Liberal Studies from Regis University in Business. Currently, she works with Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL) as a Learning Facilitator in Kakuma camp’s online higher education program. Before joining Regis, she worked with different NGOs including Film Aid International as a Facilitator and also with International Rescue Committee as a Patient Attendant. When she is not working, Faridah loves to watch movies, read books, visit friends for tea and trying out new dishes. 

Cover Photo Credit: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development by Carla Chianese, IFES via Flickr

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