Women’s Empowerment, But Only for a Moment
Volume 1, Issue 3 / February 2009
Refugee women created entrepreneurial groups to counter gender inequality and poverty, but now these initiatives are dying due to lack of NGO support
Refugees in exile find themselves in a new land, but many of the old cultural traditions remain. For women living in Kakuma Camp, traditional gender roles sometimes pose a challenge to gender equality and self-advancement. Women’s struggle for self-reliance is compounded by poverty and joblessness. In 2001, a group of refugee women formed an innovative business model to generate income for their families. Unfortunately, the program is being dissolved but NGOs have provided no explanation for the cuts.
Cultural and economic challenges to women’s equality
When people flee their countries, they go with the skills, beliefs, cultures, and values they learned in their home culture. In past years, women in the camp were only considered fit for domestic chores. Men seemed to be everything the women needed. It is this philosophy that assumes woman cannot have a say in matters affecting her life.
A Rwandan refugee woman in Kakuma reflects on her status as a woman in the past: “Our women suffered the saying that ‘women are always wrong,'” she says. “Two to three years back, women could not be consulted to contribute to the matters that affect their home.”
Still, when women reflect on today’s life in the camp, they generally affirm that the old gender inequality persists in many communities. A Burundian refugee and mother of six children explained, “There is a big gap, because even though the woman has skills or is educated, still she remains at home and depends on her husband’s provisions.”
But she says the situation must change: “Our husbands cannot provide enough in this situation, so we are supposed to assist them.”
But many women say that the primary challenge facing women in Kakuma Camp is not their husbands’ understanding, but poverty and unemployment. “When we don’t get job we are poor, when we become poor we miss our value and voice at home,” a Rwandese woman says.
Income contributions offer change
The majority of woman who spoke to KANERE reiterated the point of income contribution in their homes. They say that when women are working and contribute some money either monthly or occasionally to their homes, their husband may become less angry and his mood changes.
“My neighbour used to be beaten very often, but since she joined our catering group, I’ve never heard open quarrels in their home again,” a mother in Kakuma Three said.
Women draw several benefits from employment or any other sort of self-employment. Earnings allow them to contribute to family demands such as meat, milk, clothing, and other necessities that are not distributed to refugees in the camp.
They also get an opportunity to meet with other women and freely interact. “We can meet and form a forum. Through this forum different ideas can be discussed, then come up with substantial projects. We need this chance,” a former member of the women’s catering group said. “I want to tell you that many women learned through training how to cook delicious meals that they never knew in their own communities. We know how to budget. All these skills are the benefit of catering groups,” a former catering group committee leader said.
Recognizing the need to fight against gender imbalance in Kakuma Camp, various women’s groups have benefited from tenders offered by NGOs. A “tender” is an official agreement between an NGO and a women’s group to carry out a stated task at an agreed price.
Women’s empowerment groups
Women refugees initially developed the idea of coming together to form business groups, but they did not have start-up capital. A few of them approached then UNHCR Community Services officer Mrs. Agnes Simon, who accepted their request. In 1999, UNHCR provided the women a building, called Multinational Restaurant, and some money to start the business.
Based on their culture and knowledge, women formed groups that cooked the best meals of their traditions. The restaurant brought together women from the Sudanese Nuer, Congolese, Rwandan, Burundian, and Ethiopian communities. These foods were served to NGO staffs, who would patronize the restaurant as encouragement for the women’s innovation.
The project was only successful for four months, and eventually failed due to mismanagement. Even after its dissolution, some women from the Congolese community continued offering minimal services.
In 2001, the same enterprising group of Congolese women observed that many NGOs were spending money at private hotels like Franco Hotel, a popular place for Ethiopian delicacies. However, the NGOs had to travel in groups to meet at the restaurants and share food.
Why not allow women’s catering groups to fill this niche? The group now developed a new idea for empowering women. In the spirit of community empowerment, they approached UNCHR and LWF Community Services to share their proposal to start women’s catering groups to serve at official functions of humanitarian organizations. The idea was supported by UNHCR and LWF, and the program got underway.
Women from the camp were requested to form groups of four women each and to register in the program. UNHCR and LWF jointly supported the program. When humanitarian organizations held workshops, groups were called according to the roster to provide meals and refreshments at the site of the workshop, be it in the camp or local community. When these groups are given tender, they use their own money and the organization will pay them back plus interest.
The women’s catering groups experienced challenges. One of their leaders said, “Our main challenge was that officers in charge form their own groups. The tender that is supposed to be given refugees is given to their group. I can give example of LIMA, when they give such groups the tender they will be paid more highly than us.” But she added, “Refugees have nowhere to complain. When it is done, you keep quiet.”
LIMA was a catering group owned by several LWF individual officials in the past. Officially-owned groups could be given more tender at higher prices.
One woman involved in the catering group said that the catering groups were paid 250 Ksh per customer served at an LWF function. This price included breakfast, lunch, and refreshments. If a catering group served 50 individuals attending an LWF workshop, for example, they would be paid 12,500 Ksh. According to this woman, IRC paid 300 Ksh per customer for the same service.
But the payment scheme had not changed since the beginning of the group’s formation in 2001, although prices of food items have risen considerably. A member of the women’s catering group committee said they requested for a higher payment, but the concerned LWF officials did not accept their proposals.
Dissolution of the catering groups
Twenty-five women’s catering groups were operating during the past three years, until this January when LWF dissolved the groups. Women were not told the reason for dissolution. However, IRC and NCCK still hold the groups registered in their programs.
“We are not happy to see the project we started come to be closed by people who do not know how we started,” one woman said.
Other women who were not in this program are now trying to form their groups. Some of them are accepted into the newly formed groups.
When the concerned LWF official was contacted to speak on this matter, she declined to comment. According to the LWF Program Coordinator, William Tembu, “We are waiting for a proposed inter-agency committee to chart the way forward in respect to the press.”