International Women's Day (IWD) has been observed for many decades. The institution of the day was driven by the universal female suffrage movement that began in New Zealand and was later propelled by the labour movements in North America and Europe during the early 20th Century.
This year's theme, "Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow", anchors on enhancing gender equality for all as a precursor for achieving a sustainable future within the framework of Sustainable Development Goals. Like in preceding years, Uganda joins many other countries to commemorate women's cultural, political, and socio-economic achievements.
With the open-door policy of receiving displaced people, Uganda hosts over 1.5 million refugees, with South Sudanese nationals making up more than 65 per cent of the refugee population. Adjumani district alone has 19 refugee settlements. According to the OPM (Progres Version 4, 31-January-2022), the community is hosting 204,722 women and children, constituting 53% (129,709). Of this number, a big percentage are faced with a myriad of challenges ranging from gender-based violence, reproductive health issues, physical violence, psycho-sexual and economic abuse/torture.
Since 2018, and privy to some of these challenges, RLP has been implementing a project aimed at securing refugee-host relations in northern Uganda by enhancing their protection. This project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with implementation sites in Adjumani, Lamwo and Kiryandongo districts. Since then, RLP has identified and interacted with over 2,000 women beneficiaries of the project in Adjumani district alone.
Many refugee women and girls have experienced multiple forms of abuse while in their country of origin or during flight into Uganda. Many are widows and orphans, girl mothers, formerly abducted, raped, tortured, and living with HIV, with many more uneducated, poor, and ostracised. The most vulnerable have the least access to support or social services. Many are left destitute and rely on ever reducing relief supplies.
Given such predicaments in Adjumani’s 19 refugee settlements, the commemoration of the IWD 2022 may appear somewhat elusive. For many women refugee women and girls their right to have and determine choices; access to opportunities and resources; control their own bodies and lives, ability to influence the direction of social change and create social and economic order are still wanting.
The story of women's struggle for equality belongs neither to a single feminist nor to any one organisation. Instead, it requires the collective efforts of all who care about human rights in general. The overarching question remains, how do we sustain the successes realised thus far? I believe that the following can go a long way in rebuilding the lives of women and girls and also in supporting the pursuit towards sustaining gains on gender equality;
- Strengthening service provision for women and girls: Despite the efforts of the Government of Uganda and various support organisations in offering psychosocial support within the settlement, women and girls continue to face severe physical, economic, psychological and social difficulties. To realise transformative changes in the lives of women and girls, service providers need to forge holistic ways of analysing, internalising and addressing the physical, social, economic, and psychological difficulties faced by refugees in settlements.
- Adopting multilateral and holistic approaches to equality: A closer look at their life manifests misery and frustration with the worsening circumstances they endure daily, partly due to the fragmented model of service provision, which often adopts unilateral and individualistic approaches rather than multilateral and holistic solutions.
- Earmarking and ringfence resources targeting women and girls: To boost their economic well-being and livelihoods, there is a need to earmark and ringfence funds for refugee women, especially those in support groups and associations.
- Promoting robust measures for ending violence against women and girls: Robust measures to end SGBV experienced by women and girls in the settlements should be put in place. Services should also be readily available to respond to the effects of SGBV suffered.
- Boldly tackling child abuse and exploitation: There is a need to end child abuse and exploitation, and to explicitly encourage girls' education and empowerment.
- Promoting innovations aimed at promoting equality: Initiatives including Refugee Law Project's Screen, Refer, Support, Document (SRSD) model have contributed to timely identification of refugee survivors of war-related harms, and subsequent referrals for professional services. In this era of improved science and technology, many institutions have equally embraced innovative approaches to promoting women's access and uptake to services.
As we commemorate this year's International Women's Day, let's be reminded that for refugee women and girls to fight for their rights effectively, concerted efforts from all humanitarian and development actors are essential, especially those aimed at socio-economic, political, and social independence. When boldly implemented alongside the agency of women and girls, the much-desired goal of realising a just and fair world for women and girls might be realised not too long from today.