How Refugee Women and Girls Lead: Part 1

By Faridah Naimana

One day I was walking on the streets of Kakuma Refugee Camp and my mind started to wonder.

I started asking myself about how the leadership structure here works because most of the time you find women are only involved in household chores. You find them going to the market to buy food, going to fetch water, cooking, etc. Workers with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs here in the camp always talked of inclusion in all sectors and I asked myself if truly women and girls in school are in any leadership positions. I reached the shop because I was going to buy some tomatoes but this shop is owned by a man. I wondered and laughed at myself as to why I had such a weird thought, wondering why women are not owning shops. The only place you can find them is on the streets of the market selling green vegetables that they farm by themselves. The market place is a simple area where these women have constructed shades out of old clothes and use it as shelter so sell their vegetables. Is it capital that they lack? Are they afraid no one will buy from them? Are they limited because of how people in the community will think of them?

After returning home and completing my work, I started to think about how I could get more information concerning my curiosity and answers to my questions. From that time, I took a step into doing small interviews concerning the leadership structure in this camp and if women are involved.

A week later, I woke up on a Sunday morning feeling so energetic and so fresh. I did my daily routine. I brushed my teeth, took breakfast, and decided to move around aimlessly. But as I was walking around, it was like a wake up call, time to act and look for solutions. I remembered that in my community, we have a security guard and she is a woman. And that is a leadership position because they advertise for it and she needed to be selected from other applicants. The reason she came into my mind is that she is a strong and hard working woman. This position is hard. In other communities you find only men are in this position but due to her bravery and courage, she has helped many people, especially the sick at night. Some of her duties are: to open the main gate at night when someone is sick and wants to go to the hospital; to call the ambulance at night for the sick; to solve community conflicts that arise at night; and to call the police if the case is too big for her to solve.

I asked myself how she got the position. I immediately went to her place but unfortunately she was not around, she had gone to a church.

I am not a church person, if you’re wondering what I am doing at home on a Sunday. I went back home after a long walk and rested. I had decided that day that I would go back to her place at night, when the gate would be locked. In my community, we are in a fenced area so at night the main gate is locked and no one can come in or go out, making it safe. Each community or nationality stays in one area and each of these areas is separated by fences and gates. At 9:00, the gate is closed and if the police find you outside at that time, they arrest you and you have to pay $50 to be released.

Oh, let me give you a brief introduction toKakuma Refugee Camp inside of these gates. Let’s go on a tour.

Kakuma Refugee Camp is located in Turkana District of the northwestern region of Kenya, 120 kilometers from Lodwar District Headquarters and 95 kilometers from the Lokichoggio Kenya-Sudan border. Kakuma Refugee Camp serves refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries due to war or persecution. It was established in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees, and has since expanded to serve refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. The camp population stands at just close to 180,000 refugees. (UNHCR data as of June, 2022).

Kakuma Refugee Camp is administered by the UNHCR, which is assisted in its duties by a wide range of organizations, including World Food Program (WFP), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), FilmAid International, and Salesians of Don Bosco in Kenya.

Life in the semi-arid desert environment of Kakuma is rather challenging. The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since the camp was established, the UNHCR and other organizations introduced a leadership system whereby refugees may lead their own people since they understand their fellow refugees and live with them in the same communities. The leadership structure was established in order for both men and women to lead but due to some cultural beliefs and norms from different nationalities about gender roles, including the belief that women are not good decision makers, women can’t talk when men talk and women can never rule.

The community thinks that women lack potential to lead and thus leaves them behind on decision making issues. Women know the problems that families and communities face, thus leading would make a great difference and support the development of the community. Women in leadership are role models to the young generation and the society at large. Despite the cultural challenges, there are still women who have stood up firmly in leadership positions, and here I share their stories on how they lead. I will share with you an interview that I conducted with one of the women who is working as a security guard in the community, that same security guard I searched for on that Sunday night.

The night after my first attempt to find this security guard, I was so sure that she would be home. I knocked on her door, and she responded. I was welcomed inside her house and I sat. The house was very big and it had enough space since she had little furniture.. Her seats were plastic chairs and there was only one wooden coffee table. It looked amazing because she had decorated it with some green and white curtains. There was a sweet aroma coming from the kitchen and I wished they could serve food before I went home. We exchanged a few greeting words and she asked me why I was there at night and if there was any problem. I quickly responded that there was no problem but I needed her help with something and I just wanted her to give me a day that we could meet and talk in person. She said she would be free on a Wednesday. I was happy upon hearing that she was willing to hear me out. I bid her farewell and left. That night I went back home and was so excited and motivated to move to the next step, which was to come up with interview questions. I prepared the question and yes, we met on the day that we had agreed and here is the conversation. To protect her identity, I call her “security guard” instead of using her name.

Faridah Naimana: What does leadership look like to you?

Security Guard: As a security guard who has worked for a period of 3 years, I would say that leadership is to stand up for other people and be a good listener. Many people are facing so many problems in the community and thus having a leader who is able and capable to solve problems, that should describe a person as a leader. People will always want someone who is humble, caring and loving to be their leader and I think I am one of them.

Faridah Naimana: Can you share with me how long you have worked as a security guard in this community?

Security Guard: If I am not wrong I think it’s now 3 years working under the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS) as a block leader. When the person who was leading us left the position, that is when I thought that it was high time we also have a woman to represent us in this community. All the leadership positions you can also see, women are the ones representing us, so I wanted to make a difference.

There was a great need for a security guard person in my area since I am in zone 1 which comprises 4 blocks in each zone and thus that means I would work and stand up for all the 4 blocks. When the election time came, I noticed that only men were standing up. That is when I decided that now it’s time for me to stand up in this position. This turned out to be a very big problem since not only people from my nationality or block, but also the others were not able to accept the truth that a woman was standing up in this position. This position comes with many responsibilities that many people think women can’t handle. For example, waking up at night to call for an ambulance for emergency medical cases, solving community conflicts, reporting violent crimes to the police, and holding and attending meetings with the community and the Refugee Affairs Secretariat.

Due to discrimination and tribalism that was in our zone, I saw it as high time to stand up and fight for the rights of the oppressed. When non-food items were to be distributed to the community for people in need, there was a lot of corruption. People gave items according to their own people and that is when I realized something needed to be done. And yes, here I am now. Standing up for people’s rights. I also saw that being in this position was one way that I could be able to solve and discuss challenges that the people were facing with the concerned organizations.

I just nodded my head and before I could ask her more questions, someone knocked on her door and she had to stand and go see who it was. After some 5-6 minutes, she came back and told me she had to go to the security office because there was a case that had come up and her presence was needed. I agreed and stood up and headed for the door, but before I was out completely I reminded her that I had more questions to ask. She told me that when she was done, she could send a child to call me, so I left and went back home.

I was a little bit tired so I went straight to my room and rested. Time went by and when I woke up it was already late and I didn’t even realize time had gone. I went outside and asked my sister if any child had come to look for me but she said no. I had to do some household chores and after about 30 minutes I went to see if she was back because it was getting late and I had to make sure that we finished the conversation. When I reached her door there was still a padlock and I had to go back home and planned to return the next day.

Part II of this conversation is coming soon….

21 October, 2022