Women refugees can contribute to national development

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Ms Priscilla Dembetembe is the Project Director, of the Refugees in East Africa: Boosting Urban Innovations for Livelihoods Development (Re: Build) Project.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was ‘‘Gender Equality For A Sustainable Tomorrow’’. International Women’s Day is commemorated every year to pay tribute to the achievements of women and girls and to promote actions that advance gender equality around the world.

As we celebrate women globally, we would like to highlight women refugees living in urban areas in East Africa and examine their potential to contribute to the socio-economic development of their host countries. According to June 2021 figures from the World Food Programme (WFP), the East Africa region hosts approximately 4.5 million refugees. While most of these refugees live in rural locations spread out across the region, a growing number live in cities and other urban settings.

Urban cities like Kampala and Nairobi are attractive to refugees because they offer economic opportunities and options for self-reliance. According to January 2022 figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Kampala hosts 107,763 refugees and asylum seekers, 47 percent of whom are women.

Kenya hosts 539,766 refugees, 16 percent of whom live in urban areas, like Nairobi, and 76 percent of them are women and children. International Women’s Day provides a moment to reflect on the role of refugee women in development. Globally women-led households are more likely to be poor while in displacement contexts, the situation for women is worsened by additional challenges linked to their legal status, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and right to work, and harmful social and gender norms.

Yet, the inclusion of refugees, particularly women refugees, in the labour market could lead to significant contributions to the economies of host countries. In a 2019 analysis, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, estimated that if gender-related gaps in employment and earnings were closed in each of the top 30 refugee-hosting countries, $1.4 trillion could be generated in the global economy.

Governments, private sector actors and not-for-profit stakeholders at the global, regional, and community-levels must act to advance gender equality and ensure that an enabling environment is created for refugee women to actively participate in the economies of their host countries. This includes working with the government to enact enabling polices and regulations, partnering with the private sector to invest in women, and supporting behaviour change at the community level, so that women refugees’ unique barriers to accessing markets can be meaningfully addressed. Initiatives such as the Refugees in East Africa: Boosting Urban Innovations for livelihoods Development (Re: Build) project aspire for women and men, displaced by conflict, to be able to build a dignified and secure life and to jointly participate with their hosts in the socio-economic development of their cities.

Re: Build is a five- year partnership between the International Rescue Committee and the IKEA Foundation implemented in Kampala and Nairobi, and targeting 20,000 clients, 60 percent of whom are women from both refugee and vulnerable host communities. Re: Build supports a range of activities to enable women’s social and economic inclusion, including private and community-led childcare schemes, digital literacy trainings to close the gender and IT business divide, mentorship for female entrepreneurs, and financial offerings specially designed for women.