Women leading the way in improving the lives of women and girls
The first in a two-part series celebrating the winners of the 2022 UNHCR NGO Innovation Award.
By Amy Lynn Smith — Independent Writer + Strategist
Each year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) NGO Innovation Award recognizes non-governmental organizations using innovative approaches to assist and empower refugees and other displaced people. The 2022 Award focused on women-led organizations working at the grassroots level on issues of forced displacement. It prioritised organizations led by displaced and stateless people, particularly those dedicated to gender equality and creating new approaches to ensuring women’s safety, self-sufficiency, and success. Here are the stories of the winners whose work centres around women and girls’ empowerment and fulfilment of their rights. Stories of the other winners are highlighted in part two of this series.
FMMDI: Standing up for women’s human rights
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nathalie Kambala, Director of the NGO Femmes Main dans la Main pour le Développement Intégral (FMMDI)— meaning ‘women hand-in-hand for integral development’ — knows just how hard it can be for women to realise their human rights.
During her university studies, Nathalie’s family received a marriage dowry from a man living in Canada, but her husband returned to Canada after the wedding, leaving her in the DRC. Three years later, she learned he was also married to a woman in Rwanda. This experience led her to establish FMMDI in the Kasai-Central Province in 2012 to protect women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and battle against gender-based violence.
“We have huge challenges: social injustice, discriminatory customs, and hostility to women’s empowerment,” Kambala says. “We work with traditional and religious leaders to build awareness that women are human beings and not just material items.”
The inter-communal conflict that impacted the five territories of Kasai Central Province from 2016 to 2018 was a crescendo of human rights abuses. Thousands of women were raped amidst the violence. Unfortunately, in this region, rape is considered adultery under customary law and thus many sexual assault survivors were forced to leave their homes and children until an adultery fine was paid. FMMDI’s advocacy, with community support, convinced 138 traditional leaders to renounce this practice.
“With assistance from UNHCR, FMMDI worked with traditional leaders to abolish this custom, and gave the women judicial and psychosocial support,” Kambala says. “We were able to help 200 women be reunited with their families.”
FMMDI is fighting for the human rights of women and families at the provincial level as well, having recently proposed a provincial law to extend free education for girls who are survivors of gender-based violence as well as children born as a result of sexual assault.
“After finalising the provincial laws, we will have them adopted by Parliament and the Governor,” Kambala says. “Once that is complete, we will start desensitisation and education campaigns on these different laws, to ensure that women and girls have the human rights they deserve.”
Hope Foundation: Empowering refugee girls and women through education
The challenges facing women and girls living in Imvepi Refugee Settlement in Uganda are not unique to displaced people. Refugees from South Sudan struggle with gender-based violence, sexual harassment, teenage pregnancies, cross-generational sex, and forced marriages, often causing girls to drop out of school.
Deeply troubled by these problems, the co-founders of Hope Foundation established the organization in September 2020 to provide solutions.
Suzan Giramiya, the Executive Director, and Stella Azibazuyo, the Deputy Director, co-founded the organization along with Thomas Okiria, the Programmes Manager. According to Okiria, not only is the organization women-led, the majority of the staff — 80 percent — are refugees from South Sudan. Hope Foundation did, however, see the value in involving the host community.
“We realised that both nationals and refugees need to come together to provide solutions for young people who have not gotten access to information,” Okiria says. “But all of our services mainly benefit refugees.”
Before fleeing South Sudan, many refugees didn’t have a good education — let alone education about sexual and reproductive health, a topic that can not be openly discussed in many South Sudanese cultures. This lack of education is the cause of many of the challenges faced by refugees in the settlement.
But Hope Foundation is changing the status quo in Imvepi. The organization provides education sessions on a range of topics, largely for girls, but also for boys.
“We open the minds of the young people,” says Okiria, who considers himself a sex education activist. “We educate them on their sexuality, because we believe this gives young women and men solutions to challenges as they’re growing and transitioning through the adolescent period.”
The workshops offered by Hope Foundation cover the spectrum of sexual and reproductive health, including birth control, menstrual hygiene, information on
sexually transmitted infections, personal hygiene, cross-generational sex, and more. There are also educational programmes for adult women and men, who lacked knowledge about family planning.
Because sex education is considered a cultural taboo in South Sudanese society, Hope Foundation has recently started enlisting the support of cultural and religious leaders to advocate for the programme.
Sadly, sexual violence including rape is also an issue. “In the South Sudan context, men think that if they ask a girl for a sexual relationship she should always submit, and if she refuses, she may be raped,” he explains. “We realised we need to train girls and young women in self-defence if they encounter such situations.”
Several teenage girls have been coerced into sex and became pregnant, in which case Hope Foundation steps in to offer grants to help teenage mothers who lack a source of income to maintain themselves and their children.
Education is fundamental to Hope Foundation’s work. The organization offers free functional literacy education for more than 2,000 students in the settlement. Because the programme is not yet funded, all the teachers are volunteers, and learning centres are set up in nearby churches and early childhood development centres within the community.
“My sincere hope is that donors will come in to support us so that we can continue empowering communities,” Okiria says. “We have a duty to support every girl and boy to have a meaningful future.”
Tanma Federation: Creating opportunities for women’s livelihoods and education
Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status and, as such, are at risk of arrest and detention, and have no lawful means to earn a livelihood.
Tanma Federation was established by Myanmar refugee women in 2010 to create entrepreneurial opportunities for their community — helping them earn money to support their families.
Tanma means “strong” in Burmese, and every programme of the organization creates a stronger community of women through solidarity. In particular, it addresses challenges that refugees face when trying to earn a living in the country because of their lack of legal status and fear of arrest, gender inequality, and language barriers.
“Tanma Federation was created for Myanmar refugee women in Malaysia to have a better life and condition here, so they can sell their handicrafts to the local people,” says En Dip Muang, Coordinator, who leads the organization and is a refugee from Myanmar. “This is because they cannot go out to the bazaar or local community to sell their products.”
Through Tanma Federation, Myanmar refugee women make products such as spa and bath products using their ancestral local techniques. They also make bags and purses using traditional fabrics and embroidery or Malaysian batik fabric. The items are available for sale through Tanma Federation’s Facebook and Instagram accounts using email, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger.
Another programme of Tanma Federation is the Mang Tha nursery, which provides day care and early childhood education so parents can work without worrying about their children. In fact, Mang Tha is where the refugee women actually craft their products — and both women and girls can learn sewing and English-language skills.
“Malaysia is not our home,” En Dip Muang says. “We dream to return home when it is safe, or to find a home in another country, so we opened these classes so they are ready to speak English for their future wherever they go. This is one of the reasons we also offer classes in reducing stress for refugees, because it is very hard to face our tomorrow when we are not recognized here. That’s why we want to resettle somewhere else.”
In addition, there’s the Chin Women’s Organization (CWO) Community School, an education project for children from 4 to 17 years old. Refugees are unable to access formal education, and these informal learning centres provide education opportunities for refugee children. The centre, which is connected to Mang Tha, currently serves more than 100 children with education and food assistance.
“I hear a lot of concern from refugee women who are really worried about their children’s future, because the children cannot access education in Malaysia — they can only go to the refugee learning centre, which only provides primary-level education,” says En Dip Muang.
Mang Tha and CWO sell items made by Myanmar refugees through their Facebook pages, too, as a way to support their work. Tanma Federation has no funding and is completely run by volunteers.
“We hope people will continue to order our products or give us work,” En Dip Muang says, “so we can continue to earn some money to look after our families.”
Quinta Ola: Giving girls the tools to use their voices for positive change
Beatriz Córdova, Gianina Marquez, and Karina Nuñez were already activists when they first got the idea to establish Quinta Ola in 2017. What struck them most was that the voices of girls were not being heard in areas that directly impact them.
“When we were girls ourselves, we had this flame inside us to change things, to make transformations in our societies,” says Córdova, who is also President of the Peru-based organization. “But we didn’t have the space to develop initiatives or even be heard, to share the experiences of violence and discrimination we saw in our societies.”
This experience led them to establish Quinta Ola, which started with a programme called GirlGov Perú. Aimed at girls aged 14 to 17, the months-long programme teaches political empowerment through workshops on topics such as sexism, racism, discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community, feminism, community organising, and activism. The programme also includes mentorships, so participants can focus on one of these topics that most interests them and develop their own initiatives for social change.
“Most of the time, we know girls don’t have safe spaces for this — even in their own homes or schools,” Córdova says. “So we wanted to create this safe space.”
Quinta Ola modelled GirlGov Perú after a GirlGov programme in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, adapting it to reflect the reality of Peru. According to Córdova, one difference is that the original programme didn’t involve the girls’ parents, but Quinta Ola believed that was important in the Peruvian context.
“We felt it was a necessity if we were going to bring some sustainability to the changes that the girls were experiencing, because they were empowering,” she explains. “They started talking about topics they might not have talked about around the dinner table before, so there is a need for the parents and the community to be companions in this empowerment process.”
During its first year, Quinta Ola’s founders worked as volunteers and released the organization’s first empowerment programme without any funding. But due to the success of GirlGov Perú, the organization received an invitation from the GIZ Data Lab through the Support Programme ‘SI Frontera’, co-financed by the European Union, for host communities of refugee and migrant populations in the border areas of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This helped Quinta Ola create an empowerment and leadership programme for Venezuelan girls, whose families moved to Peru amid the economic, political, and social crises back home.
The programme for Venezuelan girls aged 14 to 17 is called Chamas en Acción, which means Girls in Action. This empowerment programme brings together Peruvian and Venezuelan girls to bring officials’ attention to the problems they see as most pressing for their demographic — which, for the Venezuelan young women, includes xenophobia. They also received mentorship to create their own initiatives. Three girls’ collectives were established to inform on topics such as hypersexualization of Venezuelan girls, discrimination in accessing education, and xenophobia in schools.
The programme involved the families from the refugee, migrant, and host communities. They created a survey to gather information on experiences of discrimination the Venezuelan community was facing, developed an analysis of the survey, and sent letters to the regional governments of Peru demanding that they take action by developing laws to prevent discrimination.
Through these and many other programmes, Quinta Ola is giving girls the tools they need to take action on the issues that they care about.
“Too often, everything comes from the view of adults,” Córdova says. “We don’t take the time to understand the experiences and listen to the voices of girls — and this is work we felt was very necessary in Peru.”
Watch for stories celebrating the other winners in part two of this series.