The challenges of South Sudanese refugee women in Uganda

South Sudanese women till the earth for planting at a refugee settlement in Adjumani district South Sudanese women till the earth for planting at a refugee settlement in Adjumani district © UNHCR/Jiro Ose

This article is a brief presentation of the Saferworld’s report on how gender norms are shaped by various conflict dynamics

 In March 2020, Saferworld released a new report entitled “Gender and displacement” which covers the period between April and August 2019. The aim of the project was to assess how displacement affects gender roles and power dynamics in refugee communities and how these changes can affect people’s security within the domestic sphere and among the host and refugee communities.  

The research was carried out in Adjumani, a district in northern Uganda, where the local community hosts 210,000 people in 15 refugee settlements. In the process, the authors conducted interviews with 177 persons (110 women and 67 men) among community leaders, local government officials, humanitarian agency staff and refugees living in settlements.  

Both Uganda and South Sudan have experienced periods of political turmoil, conflict and displacement. Since the early 1960s, when the first civil war in Sudan began, Uganda has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees. Although South Sudan gained independence in 2011,  2013 saw clashes between the forces of President Kiir and former Vice President Machar. Those violent confrontations evolved in another civil war during which involved a series of confrontations along ethnic lines (Nuer and Dinka). As a result, nearly two million people have become internally displaced and over two million -mostly women and children- have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda between 2013 and 2016.

Currently, Uganda hosts 1.3 million refugees which translates to the highest number of refugees globally after Pakistan and Turkey, and over 850,000 of refugees in Uganda  come from South Sudan. Due to the high numbers, Uganda is an important case study for understanding how gender roles and power dynamics are affected by displacement. Uganda, which has a long-term role as a refugee hosting country, houses them in settlements which are smaller than camps but are characterised with greater freedom of movement. These settlements have no fences,  meaning that “it can be hard to distinguish where a host community village ends, and a refugee settlement begins”. Here, refugees live in precarious social conditions and they “may need to take on different roles depending on livelihood opportunities”. Moreover, while the majority of South Sudanese refugees are settled in northern Uganda, a minority have “self-settled” in local villages, where access to schooling and healthcare is easier. In settlements, refugees are provided with basic materials to construct a home but they are responsible for sourcing what they need. Moreover, in some cases, South Sudanese refugees are, in numbers, equal to the local population which has a significant impact on the lives of Ugandans. For instance, conflicts between host communities and refugees can be triggered by competition regarding access to resources (grass for thatching, poles for construction, firewood, land for cultivation) . In addition, tensions have arisen between Ugandan women and South Sudanese women who have entered into relationships with host community men and are now accused of “taking” Ugandan men. But while some do so for love, for many women these relationships are a survival tool which will allow them to provide for their families. For many refugees, the rent or purchase of land is unaffordable. According to the research, host community men prefer to negotiate and reach an agreement -often with no legal basis- with women because they are easier to evict and more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

The report devotes ample space to the variations in gender roles resulting from displacement. The researchers have focused on “the gender norms and roles that refugees bring from South Sudan and how these differ from or are similar to host communities”. South Sudan is a patriarchal society where women are largely excluded from decision-making processes. In fact, it was ranked 163 out to 167 in 2019/20 Women, Peace and Security Index, which systematically measures women’s well-being worldwide using a wide range of indicators in relation to security, inclusion and justice.  South Sudan performed relatively poorly overall, due to the discriminatory laws that disempower women, the high rates of “organized violence” and “intimate partner violence” against women. For example, rape is not considered a crime if the victim is married with the perpetrator. Furthermore, among patriarchal customary practices, marriage requires that men pay for a bride, as if it was an economic transaction in which “women and girls are exchanged as currency”. The researchers report that, in South Sudan, a large number of girls (46%) are married before the age of 18. Moreover, social norms impede the aggregation of accurate statistics on domestic violence and physical abuse which are often not reported.

However, although the report describes how the absence of men or economic difficulties create new challenges for women, there are many different “gender dynamics” in refugee settlements that can create opportunities. In Uganda, salaries are often not paid for months and men have difficulties providing for  their wives, paying school fees or covering other basic needs. For this reason, some men, who were “not living up to the social expectations of what it means to be a man”, have decided to return to South Sudan. According to the gender norms, men are the breadwinners, the income providers, and if they cannot find a job, they feel that their masculinity is undermined. Women, who are often registered as the heads of households in settlements, receive financial support, becoming the family heads. Even though it creates an opportunity for women, the researchers have underlined the impact that such reversal of traditional gender roles has on lives of both men and women.  Namely, a lot of men become frustrated as they feel that they are not fulfilling their “masculine role” and “this sense of frustration increases the possibility of gender-based violence (GBV), with women usually the victims, as men use violence to assert the power they fear they are losing in the public sphere […]”. Among the refugee communities, women are usually the main victims of GBV reported cases. Even though reporting mechanisms exist, they do not extend above families or community leaders, with police being unaware of the occurences. Should a victim decide to report the case, a meeting among family members, leaders in the settlements or Refugee Welfare Committee would have to be arranged. Most of the interviewees reported that fights have occurred between husband and wife and often these meetings only aim to keep the couple together. Consequently, verbal or physical violence persists. Hence, the study underlines the need for an official protection system and functional administration of justice  which would ensure accountability for any form of violence and prevent it. GBV should not “assert men’s power and perpetuate gender inequality” but must be diminished through an increase in women’s participation in decision-making processes at the public level.  

This issue is particularly urgent since responsibilities of refugee women in Uganda have increased. The pressure on them is acute and daily tasks include they take care of the children, generating income, paying school fees or doing the housework.  As refugees live in precarious conditions, it is difficult to predict whether the changes will last, especially whether the situation evolves and men gain greater access to jobs. Despite the fact that the governance structure implemented in the settlements allows women to be more involved in public sphere and conflict resolution processes, they still have to face many challenges to take up roles that go beyond the traditional social framework. Although women are often   involved in informal groups or peace committees, which work to deescalate disputes in the settlements, their presence in the local councils is still limited. According to the people interviewed, men occupy most leadership and decision-making positions while women are a minority.

Ultimately, the report contains several recommendations to humanitarian and development agencies, to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Humanitarian and development agencies working in Adjumani should plan policies and programmes based on a gender-sensitive conflict analysis. This approach will ensure a deeper understanding of gender norms, gender inequalities and GBV in the refugee context. INGOs should support the development of a gender-sensitive approach focused on non-violence and gender equality. To “ensure that women’s meaningful participation is central to the design and implementation of all programmes and policies” and it is important to increase the number of gender specialists, train people and involve women in all phases of making refugee-targeted policies. Men and women should be helped in challenging the notion of violent masculinity by local and international organisations. This would help to prevent the risks of GBV and insecurity for women.


To know more, please read:


Author: Silvia Luminati; Editor: Aleksandra Krol

Read 836 times