Gender Equality and Self-Reliance: Interlinked Components of Refugee Women’s Protection and Economic Empowerment

By Dale Buscher, Senior Vice President for Programs, Women’s Refugee Commission

Promoting gender equality necessitates women’s access to economic opportunities on par with those of men.

This week the world is at Women Deliver — the largest convening ever held focused on gender equality. While we all know that making progress on gender equality has been problematic in the world’s most stable, economically advanced societies, how much more so in states plagued by conflict and displacement. In humanitarian response we seldom discuss the role of women’s livelihoods as critical to advancing gender equality and we seldom promote gender equality as a means to tackle and mitigate risks of gender-based violence. The silo-ing of these efforts and interventions is a zero-sum gain.

We know that promoting gender equality in practice necessitates women’s access to economic opportunities on par with those of men — occupations of status, with potential for advancement, that are dignified and well compensated. And, yet, we seldom promote such opportunities in humanitarian response, where women’s income is often seen as supplemental and women’s occupations are, more often than not, based on gender stereotypes.

If we want to promote gender equality in humanitarian settings, as we are, in fact, mandated to do, we must facilitate refugee women’s as well as men’s self-reliance and we must measure it to ensure that we are achieving it. The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) and RefugePoint are co-leading a multi-agency Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative (RSRI). Recognizing the ever-extending length of displacement, the ever-growing numbers, and the inadequate resources, the initiative advocates for self-reliance programming and market access early, everywhere, and for everyone displaced by conflict and crises. This means pushing donors to fund livelihood programs and economic opportunities and it means advocating with refugee hosting countries to allow refugees freedom of movement and the right to work in the formal economy. It means taking a holistic approach to self-reliance that covers not only economic but also social well-being, and it means measuring refugee households’ movement towards self-reliance over time.

The Self-Reliance Index developed by WRC and RefugePoint covers 12 simple domains capturing income, employment, debt, savings, school attendance, access to health care, food consumption, assistance received, housing, safety, and social networks. The simplicity of the Index allows for capturing just the most vital of data as well as ease of use for practitioners to conduct with refugee households every three to six months. As refugee households become ever more self-reliant, humanitarian assistance can be reduced and eventually discontinued as households are able to address their own needs. This approach not only restores dignity and choice but also maximizes limited resources — allowing humanitarian aid to be re-channeled to those most in need. Measuring the impact of livelihood programs also allows us, as a humanitarian community, to figure out which programs work best with whom. If a particular program isn’t resulting in refugee women’s self-reliance and their ability to feed and care for their children, we need to change, adapt, or stop the program and focus on an intervention or interventions that will.

The Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative aims to reach 5 million refugees in five years with self-reliance programming and to ensure that refugee women as well as men have opportunity, choice, and agency in planning and deciding on their priorities and their futures. This, we believe, can be our greatest contribution to advancing gender equality in humanitarian settings.

Women’s Refugee Commission

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The Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for the rights and protection of refugee women, children, and youth fleeing violence and persecution.