Tearing Down the Walls: Confronting the Barriers to Internally Displaced Women & Girls’ Participation in Humanitarian Settings


Internal displacement is one of the most pressing policy and humanitarian challenges standing before the global community. This UNHCR research project is an effort to further investigate the gender dimensions of internal displacement by understanding the barriers facing internally displaced (IDP) women and girls in participating in making decisions that affect all aspects of their lives.

The objectives of this study are:

1. To identify barriers to the full and meaningful participation and leadership of IDP women and girls in national policy and legal mechanisms and solutions;

2. To provide actionable recommendations to overcome barriers to the full participation and leadership of IDP women and girls.

This study’s findings are derived from a literature review of global practices and themes related to IDP participation and gender equality in humanitarian settings, and from fieldwork conducted in Niger and South Sudan in late 2018. Borrowing from several theoretical frameworks on participation, our analysis looks at how participation plays out within three spheres: (1) the individual and the household; (2) the local level comprising the community and/or camp; and (3) state/national levels that are often the domain of the elite. This project identifies ways that IDP women and girls can substantively realize their right to participate in decision-making in their households, their communities, and their nation.

Key Findings:

1. IDP women and girls are often preoccupied with meeting safety and survival needs that take time and energy away from participation: The effort to secure survival needs and to remain safe is a fundamental barrier to IDP women and girls in claiming their rights to participate and in making decisions about their well-being. The most pressing survival barriers to participation identified in South Sudan and Niger are:

IDP women and girls exert considerable time and effort to stay safe and meet survival needs, diminishing time and energy that could be channeled towards activities that enable them to build confidence and exercise decision-making in their lives and their communities.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a significant barrier to the participation of IDP women and girls, who may be disproportionately affected by SGBV in comparison to non-displaced populations. Domestic violence emerges as a significant hindrance to IDP women and girls’ participation, and this study emphasizes the need to recognize the linkage between domestic violence and women’s participation: if a woman is disempowered in her own home, she is not likely to enter public spaces to participate. Tackling domestic violence alongside other forms of SGBV is thus critical for increasing IDP women’s engagement in decision-making in their homes, communities, and nations.

The securitization of the humanitarian space gives rise to disproportionate risks for women and girls that can cause a retreat from visible engagement in the public sphere. The proliferation of military actors in South Sudan and Niger and their incursion into civilian spaces is a risk to the safety and mobility of IDP women and girls. UNHCR is urged to continue its engagement with military actors in these contexts and in other humanitarian settings in order to mitigate protection risks brought about by their presence.

IDP women and girls struggle with the loss of livelihood assets, and with it the sense of agency and decision-making power that an income can bestow. We argue that scaling up opportunities for economic autonomy that ease the burdens of survival and build agency can activate greater decision-making power for women and girls in the individual and household spheres. Achieving an active form of participation within apparently humble spaces is in fact necessary to achieve participation in national spaces where hard power decisions are made.

2. Participation is not always empowering for IDP women and girls: Acknowledging the complexity of IDP settings, our findings suggest that the participation mechanisms employed in IDP settings can unintentionally disempower IDP women and girls and reinforce the dominance of men in the following ways:

Humanitarian actors and governments are often over-reliant on consultation as a tool for engaging populations of concern, which has led to consultation fatigue among IDP women and girls, as well as a lack of confidence in the humanitarian system and the government to follow through on commitments and to protect rights. Consultation is in fact a passive process and can be counterproductive when the participation process stops there and there is no visible redistribution of power to women and girls.

Women and girls’ safe spaces (WGSS) are crucial entry points for women who do not have opportunities for organization and who are denied a sense of ownership of their bodies, their lives, and the places in which they reside.

WGSS are perhaps the first space for participation available to women after they step out of the house and the first place where women are listened to as individuals. WGSS also provide linkages to the other participation structures in a community.

Income-generating projects represent a concrete step towards the empowerment of IDP women and girls when they enable participants to wield greater control of resources and thus to make their own financial decisions�in turn activating their power within the household. However, in Niger and South Sudan economic empowerment interventions are often too short-lived and lack a strong exit strategy that enables IDP women to continue on past the expiration date of the project, thus interrupting the momentum gained in increasing women’s participation.

Both South Sudan and Niger reflect the wider trend of the transfer of greater responsibilities and therefore risk to local/ national partners in order to reach populations in constrained spaces. Local/national partners are often not equipped to deliver technically complex programs in women’s participation or SGBV. They are also often asked to implement in remote areas where international actors are less likely to venture or to provide the technical oversight and monitoring critical to the execution of SGBV and women’s participation work. This study emphasizes that partnerships with local/ national organizations can be an effective means of increasing women’s participation, but it is imperative that local partnerships do not become solely a strategy for redistributing risk from international onto local organizations in contexts where security is constrained.

The agency of international actors in mediating participation structures and forwarding gender equality is highly visible to the IDP women and men consulted in South Sudan and Niger. South Sudanese IDP women even described international actors as the torchbearers of women’s needs and rights. Yet when international actors take great interest in women and girls and/or become the authors of gender equality, this can lend participation structures an air of artificiality and lead to blowback from men and boys who perceive that women and girls receive disproportionate benefits and attention.

There is a dearth of women’s participation projects that concretely link the local to the national and take a long-term, strategic view.

Alongside previous research on women’s participation in fragile contexts,we reemphasize that women’s rights organizations and specialized aid actors need ample time and financial resources to dismantle the discriminatory social norms barring IDP women and girls from participation and equality.

3. IDP women and girls are not fully benefitting from policies and laws intended to protect them: While both Niger and South Sudan have advanced in building normative frameworks around gender equality, gaps and inconsistencies remain, particularly in the implementation and follow-through.

Conflict-affected countries like Niger and South Sudan are in need of capacity-building and continued pressure and technical support from the international community to uphold their commitments and implement laws and policies related to displacement and gender equality.

Women and girls (especially IDPs) are conspicuously absent from positions of power in the spaces of government in Niger and South Sudan.

Women holding positions in government in both Niger and South Sudan face discrimination and intimidation, revealing a need to more directly confront gender inequality within formal power structures.

Many government stakeholders interviewed for this study display the tendency to delay women’s participation and leadership until peace is realized, symptomatic of the harsh gender discrimination embedded within formal power structures. The pattern of delaying women’s participation disregards the provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and is counterproductive to the realization of peace.

Even in the case where a fragile peace were to be realized without the robust participation of women, it would neither bring about women’s participation nor end SGBV unless there is a significant shift in structural inequalities and discrimination against women.

It is unrealistic to expect peace agreements in conflict-affected settings to succeed if displaced women and girls are not involved in their development and implementation. There consequently needs to be significant pressure from the international community to meaningfully include IDP women and girls in the implementation of peace agreements and to push for women to be in leadership positions that wield actual power.

In order to rectify the gaps in implementation of policies and laws related to internal displacement, it is crucial to draw out clear and concrete provisions on gender equality in the IDP legislation that specify how and in which mechanisms and structures IDP women will participate and, if possible, lead in decision-making. Most importantly, the involvement of IDP women and girls should not stop with consultation; rather, women should be involved in the actual drafting and development of laws.

4. Gender inequality remains the greatest structural barrier to IDP women and girls’ participation:

The gaps in IDP women and girls’ participation inevitably come down to gender inequalities embedded and reproduced within social norms, the humanitarian system, and national and international institutions of power. It is imperative to confront these inequalities head-on to improve women’s participation.

Men’s control over decision-making and their attitudes on what women should and should not do are among the most resistant barriers to IDP women and girls’ substantive participation, particularly as they predate and transcend displacement and conflict and penetrate all spaces of participation. There is an evident need to work with IDP men and boys to deconstruct these rigid inequalities through engaging men in accountable practice to women. High-quality, strategic interventions demand a heavy commitment of male and female staff who are technically competent and convinced of the value of gender equality.

Efforts to change men’s and boys’ attitudes and practices need to be sustained and strategic; unitary sensitization has not and will not achieve the change necessary to reduce violence against women and girls and carve out space for women’s participation.

Gender equality starts within the humanitarian system itself. It is unrealistic to aim for substantive women’s participation among IDP communities and in governments when humanitarian actors cannot model gender equality. While security and cultural norms around women’s work are undeniable challenges in recruiting female staff in many IDP settings, UNHCR and other humanitarian actors are urged to make efforts to augment the presence of female staff at all levels while ensuring that all staff recognize gender equality as an organizing principle of all humanitarian work.

It is not realistic to expect that most IDP women and girls will be able to immediately enter the more formal spaces of power to participate in leadership. Our findings suggest that focusing on and recognizing the legitimacy of IDP women’s contributions in all the abstract spaces of participation (individual/household, community/camp, and national) will with time lead to a greater representation and leadership in the formal and visible spaces of power. We also argue for strengthening the linkages through all these spaces in which IDP women and girls’ participation can occur.

As the global Protection Cluster lead, UNHCR occupies a strategic position for ensuring that women and girls’ substantive participation is embraced as an integral component of all protection activities, and to lead by example in placing gender equality as an organizing principle of protection�and in fact all humanitarian action. UNHCR and its partners can work alongside IDP women and girls as they dismantle the barriers that keep them from realizing their agency in the present and future of their communities and their countries.

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees