Making change happen in humanitarian settings: Perspectives from women refugees leading the way


28 November 2022


Women and girls are hardest hit by conflict and disasters. Women are also often the first to respond to meet the needs of their families and communities.

Despite this, women affected by crisis often have little or no influence over the design and delivery of humanitarian assistance. This is important - not only because women have a fundamental right to contribute to the decisions that affect their lives, but because without their participation, humanitarian assistance often does not meet women and girls’ needs. It can reinforce gender inequalities and cause harm.

Since 2018, CARE has been working to address gaps in the humanitarian system by piloting tools and approaches which support women’s voice and leadership by shifting power and resources directly to women in communities affected by crisis.

The result of these pilots is the Women Lead in Emergencies approach (Women Lead): a set of adaptable programmatic components and tools to support women’s participation and leadership in crisis and improve the inclusivity, accountability and effectiveness of humanitarian response. This is done through tailored, context specific approaches to support the confidence, skills and knowledge of each Women Lead group.

Women Lead does not prescribe what ‘success’ looks like, but rather asks women to define the outcomes that they want to see. The role of the Women Lead team is then to support them in achieving those ends. This means that women can choose to focus on what matters most to them, which helps ensure the programme is relevant to participants and allows them to put participation into practice right from the start. For some Women Lead groups, this means focusing on strengthening the skills they feel are necessary to engage in community decision making, such as literacy or public speaking. Others will use their time to start small businesses to make an extra income, or address community wide issues such as gender-based violence. Having the flexibility to focus on any of these areas means Women Lead groups can lay the foundations to meaningfully, and confidently, participate in community decision-making.

Here, Women Lead participants from Colombia, Niger and Uganda share their experiences of working with Women Lead and the different ways they are making change happen in the humanitarian system.

Taking a stand against sexual and gender-based violence in Niger

Before working with the Women Lead in Emergencies programme, Lami says she was shy and found speaking in public intimidating. She credits Women Lead with helping to overcome this.

I have received a lot of training through the Women Lead project that has allowed me to develop my leadership but also to overcome my shyness."


Lami png

Lami became president of her Women Lead group and was chosen to be part of a committee to protect women and girls. In the refugee camp where Lami lives, women and girls face considerable risks from sexual and gender-based violence. At one time, there were nightly cases of rape in households within the camp. Lami realised there was a need for women in the community to organise to address this and keep themselves safe:

"I was able to overcome my silence and I was the first to mobilise the women."

However, addressing this issue was not straightforward and the women found that influencing powerholders was not easy. First, they went to the village chief, but they were ignored. Undeterred, the group decided to seek out new stakeholders to influence. They took the issue to law enforcement and were successful:

Our voices were heard by the authorities who agreed to patrol every night to prevent men from entering our houses…This was my greatest achievement: I was not afraid or slowed down by anyone. I spoke in public and in front of everyone in order to defend our rights."

Overcoming trauma to support conflict management in Uganda

Between July 2016 and 2020 there was an influx of over 880,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, the vast majority of whom were women and children. Harriet was one of these refugees. She was deeply affected by what she had experienced in South Sudan.

I used to think that whoever came to me was coming to fight or kill me…In July 2019, I joined the South Sudanese Women's Association. When I joined the group, I realised there were many other traumatised people as well."


Harriet, Women Lead in Emergencies

Harriet quickly found herself elected as Vice-Chairwoman of the South Sudanese Women’s Association. When the Chairperson returned to South Sudan, Harriet took on the role, but she still lacked confidence in this leadership position:

"I was elected as the Chairperson… but I had no idea how to lead. CARE came during that time and organised training on how to be a leader... I started to talk without fear."

With support and training from Women Lead in Emergencies, Harriet began to feel more able to take a lead in the issues that affected her community and began to mediate disputes between community members. People would come to her to resolve tensions within their households and also issues impacting the broader community, such as ownership of natural resources.

I can say the community has changed a lot through my leadership. There was a lot of tribalism which caused many fights here and I forwarded the issues to [humanitarian actors] who worked to address them. (Disputes over) firewood and land used to be a problem. However, I organised dialogues with the host communities, and they gave us land."

Supporting women in business to build solidarity between migrants and host communities

While making the long walk from Venezuela to Colombia, Marisa experienced the stark reality of the journey taken by millions of Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse in their home country. She travelled with pregnant women, unaccompanied children and other highly vulnerable groups. They faced the constant threat of robbery and predatory human traffickers. And, with xenophobia against migrants and refugees on the rise in Latin America as a result of COVID-19, Marisa knew that even in her place of refuge there could be risks of hostility.

With support from Women Lead in Colombia, Marisa and her group-members have been able to ‘formalise’ the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, an organisation which supports businesses and builds solidarity between migrants and host communities in the neighbourhood of Cristo Rey, Colombia. As a formal legal entity, the Association is able to more easily access funding and provide services to members of the community.

My power is to transform negative things into positive ones, to try not to stay in the tragedy, that is my philosophy. I always want to leave something good where I go."



As Vice-President of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, that is exactly what she has done. The neighbourhood of Cristo Rey is one of the most vulnerable in Pamplona, with a high concentration of migrants. The Association supports women to set up small businesses and revitalise the neighbourhood in ways in which everyone can benefit, including internally displaced, migrant and host communities. Marisa says this work has made her feel part of the community:

When I talk to women, we realise that there are no borders, we are simply women, no matter where you are… you think and feel the same."

The experiences of Lami, Harriet and Marisa show the different challenges, needs and priorities faced by women in humanitarian settings around the world - and the importance of flexible programming in order to meet these needs. You can find out more about the Women Lead in Emergencies multi-country evaluation in the Learning Brief and Executive Summary.

Find out more about CARE's Women Lead in Emergencies programming

Photo credits: Ollivier Girard/CARE Niger; CARE Niger; Norah Namono/CARE; CARE Columbia

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Meet the women who are leading the way

Our interactive online gallery tells the story of women from Diffa, Niger who have taken part in Women Lead in Emergencies.

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Women on the move