Equality of refugee women in the return-reintegration context
The project in brief
- Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR)
- The Border Consortium (TBC)
- Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS)
- Act for Peace (AfP)
- Sri Lanka (North-East)
- India (Tamil Nadu)
- Thailand (Karenni camps on the Thai-Myanmar border)
- Myanmar (Kayah State)
1 July 2017 - 31 March 2021
Tamil refugees who fled the civil war in Sri Lanka have resided in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, India, for up to three decades and are now returning to North-East Sri Lanka. After over thirty years of conflict, indigenous Karenni refugees from Kayah state in Myanmar continue to reside in refugee camps inside Thailand.
The goal of the “I’m Prepared” program was that ‘Refugee women are empowered through a return and reintegration process that enables full enjoyment of social, economic and political rights’.
The focus on meaningful participation and leadership of refugees and returnees was a key factor in the successful implementation of the program.
Having a longitudinal research evaluation facilitated by an external academic institution in the program supported learning, reflection and adaptation through the program; provided the program participants an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences through their return to countries of origin; and supported refugee-led CSOs to obtain research skills for future use in their own refugee communities.
Main activities of the Good Practice
(1) Knowledge: Increased informed decision-making and - for those wishing to return - increased preparedness. This was undertaken through organising group calls between refugees in camps and people in communities to which refugees returned, or Go & See visits when possible; Information, Education and Communication materials; protection trainings helping refugees to self-identify risks and opportunities within different courses of action; and awareness raising regarding common issues regarding return to foster informed decision making.
(2) Economic Empowerment: Returnee and local women in areas of return enjoy strengthened economic opportunities and empowerment to enable safe, dignified and sustainable reintegration. This was undertaken through provision of livelihood trainings and inputs, and linking returnee women, or local women in communities of return, to credit and to markets including through networking with business people and leaders in areas of return.
(3) Leadership: Refugee and returnee women enjoy increased social and political influence, respect through leadership and engagement in family, community-level and broader society in camp settings and areas of return. This was undertaken through referrals to government or NGO services and support; mobilising to undertake lobbying and claim rights; supporting new or existing women's networks and providing protection training.
(4) Learning: Development effectiveness of preparedness and return and reintegration programming is strengthened. This was achieved through a three-year longitudinal research project following refugees in camps in India and Thailand through their process of deciding whether or not to return to their countries of origin, and tracking the experience of women's empowerment through this process.
- Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation (OfERR) in India
- Organisation for Elangai Refugees' Rehabilitation (OfERR Ceylon)
- The Border Consortium (TBC) in Myanmar and Thailand
- Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
- Act for Peace (AfP)
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Gender Action Platform
Challenges and how they were overcome
- Social change and empowerment are long-term processes, so while there are good indications of progress it can be 'two-steps forward, one-step-back'. Addressing patriarchal gender norms and mitigating the negative impacts of entrenched obstacles to women’s control over resources.
The program addressed this through Community Economic Development Forums which are partly comprised of influential leaders in the community & business people , usually men, who the program hopes to harness as champions of change. The CEDFs were designed to help women returnees to access market opportunities in local communities in areas of return; supporting leaders and men in the wider community to understand and support gender-sensitive preparedness and women’s rights more generally; engaging male leaders as champions of change in order to promote understanding of the contributions women make to more sustainable, safe and dignified return processes. It is difficult in a short period of time to shift some of the entrenched cultural norms, and this is ongoing work.
- All livelihoods initiatives were based on market assessments, and there were challenges in ensuring that market assessments were gender sensitive and also relevant for returnees who often have even less access to productive resources and credit than other groups.
The project addressed this through working closely with the market assessment team to ensure gender sensitivity and a focus on the specific needs of returnees were considered in the ToR and data collection tools.
Context specific challenges
Thailand / Myanmar: Lack of return from the Karenni camps to Myanmar meant that we can measure gender empowerment within the camps through preparedness processes, and build a stronger enabling environment for gender sensitive reintegration in Myanmar. But we cannot measure the actual gender equality and women’s empowerment during the return process. The return context in Myanmar, specifically Kayah State, remained a challenge in terms of safety and lack of government services (including for referral of protection cases eg people in areas of return facing exploitation/abuse and low reporting of these cases).
- The project overcame these issues where possible through strong CSO grassroots partnerships, including Karenni National Women's Organisation (KNWO) who run a safe house for sexual and gender-based violence survivors.
In India / Sri Lanka: One of the biggest challenges faced is the spreading of misinformation.
- To counter this, lot of effort was spent on consistent and accurate information, linking in with the Department of Home Affairs funded SLRRRP program, and then disseminating information in culturally appropriate ways for different genders in the camps prior to return (i.e. if a woman is coming for a different activity, this opportunity can be used to also share information about preparedness at the same time).
Working across four country contexts (as well as Australia, where the program was overseen from) was a benefit and opportunity to undertake cross-learning between partners and contexts but also presented challenges regarding communication including language differences and technical issues.
- This was managed through a partnership approach that valued the cross-learning and therefore promoted patience with these challenges and additionally additional funding was found to enable both an Inception Meeting and a mid-term learning event in person in Bangkok during the project to enable face to face conversations and team building.
Results of the Good Practice
- Refugees in targeted refugee camps in Tamil Nadu (India) and the Thai-Myanmar border are better equipped to make informed decisions about staying or returning due to access to up-to-date, relevant information: in India: 19,264, and in Thailand: 7,021
- Sampled rights-holders self-report greater economic independence and empowerment: 75% in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar
- 65% of beneficiaries surveyed in Sri Lanka indicated they enjoy greater safety, justice & dignity as result of reduced protection risks & vulnerabilities due to psychsocial & legal support and/or access to justice, and 75% of beneficiaries in Sri Lanka reported that they enjoy greater safety, justice and dignity with reduced protection risks.
- Women have increased access to government livelihood assistance & documentation services for themselves & their families: 8,229 in Sri Lanka, and 435 in Myanmar
How the project meets the GCR Objectives
Objective 4: Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity
The “I’m Prepared” program contributed to gender equality for refugee and returnee women within the return and reintegration praxis by:
- Social and political empowerment: Developing an enabling environment for greater social & political empowerment by enhancing the collective voices of women refugees through informal and formal advocacy work.
- Economic empowerment: Women were supported to attain livelihood skills prior to return, and then in their home countries supported to engage in and develop private sector-linked livelihoods using their improved livelihood skills. In-country partnerships will be developed, particularly through the establishment of value chains through small scale business and cottage industries.
The “I’m Prepared” program has closed, however AfP continues to undertake protection and women’s empowerment work with refugees in India and Thai camps, and with returnees in Sri Lanka, with partners OfERR and TBC.
Further support required for the project to continue or scale up
The "I'm Prepared" project was generously supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Gender Action Platform. Ongoing funding for pilot initiatives supporting gender equality and women’s empowerment through voluntary repatriation and reintegration processes.