Moving Beyond Storytelling and Empowering Refugee Women to Lead

Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders (GIRWL) Co-founder Najeeba Wazefadost spoke at the 10 November 2021 meeting of the Action Network on Forced Displacement: Women as Agents of Change, launched by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in 2020. This is an edited version of her remarks. Find out more about GIRWL and their work with the World Refugee & Migration Council here: wrmcouncil.org/GIRWL


Although there has been recognition of the need for participation of refugee women for some time, the movement to include refugee women in decision-making processes, or as providers of protection, has only recently gained momentum. And, to be honest, there are still significant gaps between the rhetoric of refugee women participation and practices at the local, national, regional and international levels. 

So, to improve responses to forced displacement in particular, my one clear message is that we need refugee women at the table and that they be empowered to act. 

It’s a very difficult time right now, to be honest, for me to speak about this as we are witnessing a backward situation for our women in Afghanistan. The hardline rule of gender segregation of the 1990s — barring women from almost all work and education — is happening again in Afghanistan. And, right now, as we are speaking here about participation of women, we are seeing women and girls losing almost every right and access to basically anything that they could do.

As part of the Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders (GIRWL) network, we’ve been working quite actively on the ground with local women leaders who are still left behind in Afghanistan. There are many female teachers, many female students, many girls and young women who are still isolated and staying home and not able to attend schools or universities. But they still have a lot of inspiration and motivation, as well as hope that they can fight for their survival.

Refugee women tell us that they really want to move on from storytelling, that they really want to move on from ad hoc consultations, that they want to be part of the design and the implementation of programs.

But in talking about networking today, and if I’m to talk about women refugee participation in particular, I would say there are so many refugee women-led initiatives across the world that are quite effective, innovative and impactful. This is because the solutions needed are identified from within the affected communities. Refugee women in particular know what will work best for them and they are committed and accountable to their own communities. And we really need to be mindful of this. 

This Action Network on Forced Displacement can be a very important space, where we can look to the international leaders, especially women leaders, for ways that we could facilitate access for refugee women, in particular to have influence on decision making. 

I would really emphasize two things in order for us to promote the full and active participation of refugee women and girls in all their diversities: there needs to be greater support given to all refugee women’s leadership opportunities to enhance their representation in decision making, and barriers to their participation must be removed. 

This really requires a few things:

  1. investing in resources and education;
  2. upskilling them through capacity strengthening, which is so important; and
  3. mentorship for many refugee women and girls to realize their full potential as leaders

It also requires the support and inclusion of refugee women and girls in planning, design and implementation of programs and policies. 

What we at GIRWL hear when we talk to women in consultations, conferences and forums, especially in communities of refugee women, is that many of the wonderful, grassroots and local organizations don’t have access to funding, networking opportunities or direct conversation with governments. 

Refugee women tell us that they really want to move on from storytelling, that they really want to move on from ad hoc consultations, that they want to be part of the design and the implementation of programs. They want to create policies themselves, because the policies are really about their lives. 

This really includes actively increasing and investing in women’s participation in conflict prevention, in talks about peacebuilding, in conflict resolution processes, such as those outlined in women, peace and security agendas. So all of these things are so important and we must ensure that the voices of refugee women are incorporated, that we have enough spaces to amplify their voices, that we have enough spaces for them to actually act on their own, rather than others acting on their behalf. 

I think that there are still many institutions and many international processes that don’t necessarily include refugee women leaders in their work, or their budgets. And this despite my experience in GIRWL as well as in the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees that the refugee community and refugee women in particular demonstrate a great capacity to solve problems and to be resilient, particularly around issues of migration, as well as integration. 

We’ve seen very clearly that refugee women are always the first and the last responders in many countries, in Germany, in Australia, in Europe, in Africa. In many, many parts of the world they’ve been integration guides for the newcomers, they’ve been program implementers, they’ve been educators. So they’ve proven that they’ve got skills and resilience. COVID-19 itself has been a great testimony of showing that at such a crucial time, when many of the international actors were forced to withdraw from the field, it was really the local actors, it was really the refugee women who had to respond to their own situation. What we saw from the COVID-19 pandemic was that women turned the crisis into an opportunity, they really filled the gaps, they responded to the needs. 

I think it’s about time for us to move away from the conversation about how women can participate and instead help them innovate. We must create an enabling environment for women to move away from refugee participation to refugee leadership. And if we want them to be seen as equal partners, as equal co-developers for the solutions, then we need to see them as equal experts, as equal leaders at the table.