War and conflict has had a personal impact on my life. Due to the conflict in South Sudan I was born a refugee, in a foreign land away from home. I had to adapt to this new home in Nairobi, learning their language and culture and still learn my people’s ways. My mom and dad worked to ensure we could still find a way to identify with our people through language, food, culture and stories. As we became accustomed to the Kenyan way of life my parents were still struggling to start their new life and raise their children.
Conflict has affected me negatively but it also given me the opportunity to get an education and achieve my goals. Education in the context of displacement has enabled me to understand my potential, develop it and use it to enlighten my community. It has enabled me to appreciate diversity, to value what everyone brings to the table and how to work together to achieve a goal.
My parents were keen to ensure that my siblings and I had access to education. They believed that education was one of the only things that could not be stripped away from you. My parents believed we were all capable of achieving our dreams and they would support us to pursue our goals and work for our community in various ways to stand up for others and for justice, become better, and explore how to give support to the most vulnerable.
As a young woman I have had to overcome various obstacles because of my gender; stereotyping, lack of recognitions of my skills, missed leadership opportunities, cultural challenges, to name a few.
“Women cannot take part in peace negotiations because they are too soft and would quickly agree to the terms.” This comment was made by a male leader as we were discussing the importance of including women in the South Sudan peace process.
I took part in the peace process because I wanted to contribute in achieving peace for my country and I want to go home. But during the whole process, I had to prove I had the experience and that I could meaningfully contribute. I had to work with my male colleague and get their support to ensure that the people I approached wouldn’t speak in an inappropriate way. Despite the challenges, one of the most important things I learnt from this was that women are ready to support other women and serve their community.
I have seen how many women have decided to step up and help their community. Farida, a colleague of mine, is an incredible young woman who has done just that. Farida was a young wife, mother and a widow. These experiences shaped her to become an amazing advocate and champion against child marriage and on the importance of inclusion of women. She is currently running One Touch studio and Davison group in Kyaka 2 settlement in Uganda and using music to educate the community on different issues.
Like Farida, many refugees are identifying the needs within their community and finding innovative solutions to tackle the challenges. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many refugees have been leading the response to the crisis and ensuring that their efforts are coordinated and flexible to respond to the rapidly changing context.
Adhieu, another incredible young refugee woman in Kenya, is using her skills to make soap and face masks. She has distributed 3000 masks and 3000 bars of soap in Kakuma, Nairobi and Dadaab. She is also hosting online classes with refugee girls in the camps to ensure that they are able to continue their education during the pandemic.
Women and girls are not inherently vulnerable. We have skills and capacities that we can use not only for our personal growth, but also for our communities. I work with incredible women who, every single day, choose to put humanity first.
We must work to empower women and girls by facilitating opportunities for them to voice their ideas, engage in decision-making processes, and develop their leadership potential. We need to build upon their existing knowledge, skills, capacities, and qualifications; support access to learning opportunities, including formal and non-formal education, skills building, and jobs training; and facilitate employment, and livelihood opportunities.
Farida, Adhieu and I are just a few examples of the many women and girls with similar or even worse experiences, but who are working for their community. Women and girls who have overcome various challenges to be able to work effectively within their community to support those who need it. Many other women don’t have people who acknowledge their work, skills or capabilities, they still have to continue to prove themselves. We are not just refugees or just women. We have skills, expertise and experience that shape our work and adds much value to our communities.
Refugees can be involved. Refugees can participate. Refugees are partners. It is definitely a process but we must commit to work collaboratively with everyone in our community. We must see that our diversity is our strength and that everyone has value to add to the process.