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Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei

Women and girls in three very different refugee sites – in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and on the Thai-Burma border – are using their skills, knowledge and experience as “first responders” and being recognised as key to assisting other women and girls facing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For many, it is a continuation of work they have been doing quietly for years, despite on-going sexual and gender-based violence and major barriers to women’s participation in decision-making about their families and communities. They have done this working in partnership with others involved in the research project, Refugee Women – Key to the Global Compact on Refugees* (GCR), led by the authors with  Geraldine Doney. The project is funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The GCR was affirmed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018 and provides a framework to support more equitable responsibility sharing in the search for sustainable solutions for the world’s refugees. 

The project is facilitating and monitoring the implementation of gender commitments made in the GCR, in particular supporting refugee women’s participation and addressing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). As researchers, we travelled regularly to each country, working with local academic, NGO and United Nations partners in each site to support women’s groups to achieve these aims. This includes providing small amounts of funding to refugee women’s groups to set up projects in each site, which are being documented and monitored to identify best practices and challenges. The emergence of the pandemic involved a change of plan, since the research team could no longer travel. Immediately, we were granted permission by DFAT to enable refugee women and supportive partner agencies to very successfully adapt programs to fit the local contexts, reflecting social and political considerations. As refugee women on the Thai-Burma border told us ‘Just support us to be involved… we can do many things ourselves… with resources, we can support our sisters, offer good services… it does not have to be done for us.’

To understand what is meant by refugee participation, we have developed a framework. First, it includes the concept of refugee-led projects, in which refugee women and girls suggest solutions, develop project proposals, deliver and evaluate services themselves. Secondly, it involves refugee participation: projects administered by UN and NGO stakeholders but in close and genuine partnership with refugee women. Refugee inclusion/involvement describes situations where strict government controls dictate that programs are led by UN and non-governmental organisations, but there is genuine input from refugee women and girls who work as volunteers, with some incentives and resources.  Refugee-informed activities refer to those where refugees are consulted but not directly involved in decision-making. At times it is not clear cut, and there are cross-overs. In some sites, unfunded and under-resourced refugee women-led initiatives exist in parallel to UN- and NGO-led initiatives. The key to bringing these different actors together has been a multi-stakeholder approach with refugee women and girls at the centre. This clearly reflects the aspirations of the GCR. The participants working in the projects have leadership qualities and already play important roles as community organisers. They have participated in training on SGBV, gender issues, women’s leadership and participation, and advocacy.

Refugee women-led virtual support groups in response to COVID-19 in Thailand 

The program on the Thai-Burma border is totally refugee-led by well-established women’s groups which have received training, capacity-building and modest resources over a number of years. They have a well-developed capacity to deliver services and had in fact organised a community-level response to COVID-19 before we were able to offer them a small amount of funding to expand their work. A needs analysis was undertaken, and they are supplying food supplies, masks, soap, health information and emotional support to the most vulnerable women and girls, survivors of SGBV, people with a disability and the elderly in eight camps.

Refugee women’s virtual support groups in response to COVID-19 in Malaysia, supported by partner NGOs and UNHCR

The objectives of this project reflect refugee participation, as it is led by a group of NGOs, refugee women and UN stakeholders. It enables refugee women leaders to share experiences and learn about ways of coping during COVID-19 through virtual support groups. The program focuses on community well-being via remote engagement using phone, WhatsApp messages and video calls. This facilitates purposeful engagement among refugee women in this urban site. It also provides emotional support and reveals issues of mental health, SGBV, and other personal and social problems that people are experiencing. It provides access to specialist services provided by partner agencies. 

Refugee women included/involved in responses to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

"What we need more strongly is capacity. I have knowledge to share but I need more support – space, technical supports, costs."   (Refugee woman leader, Bangladesh, 2020)

In Cox’s Bazar, the project falls more into the refugee inclusion/involvement category. However, the partners with whom we are working incorporate self-organised women’s groups that had already begun programs to support women and girls in their own communities by providing health information, soap, hand sanitiser and sewing masks for distribution. With the support of a local NGO and UNHCR, they have formed strong teams and are working together to develop COVID-19-related support services. The project we are funding is being developed in consultation with all key players, and a number of refugee women have been engaged as community volunteers/mobilisers to receive training and to continue to provide support, gender and health awareness, and SGBV support to their own communities. 

Psycho-social Support

At the request of project partners, the UNSW team has developed a plain-language, online psycho- social training program which has been translated into seven community languages, with more underway.


As we learned from our work with grassroots women’s groups in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, and refugee women’s groups on the Thai-Burma border after Cyclone Nargis (2008), while they were often the first critical responders, they struggled to access the relatively small amounts of funding that could have supported immediate and life-saving impacts. The sad irony was that while many donors were ready to offer large amounts of funding, the application and reporting requirements were so complex and time-consuming that it precluded grassroots women's groups from applying, or the timelines meant that immediate needs for small amounts of funding were not met. 

In the pandemic, we were determined to ensure that women’s groups had access to cash and resources as soon as possible and with minimal restrictions. As noted above, we were able to direct funding quickly to current initiatives using a basic application form and a monitoring and evaluation framework. We are documenting these projects as models of service provision which demonstrate that the commitments made in the GCR about refugee women’s leadership and participation are possible, doable, cost effective and can be adopted for use in many different circumstances. 

“Man, woman, girl, boys, government, UNHCR, NGO have to all sit together to solve this problem because none of them can do it alone.” (Refugee women, Kuala Lumpur, 2019)

Refugee women’s groups are the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis, and we stand in awe of what they continue to achieve.

All documents and materials mentioned can be accessed here.


Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway was the Director of the UNSW Centre for Refugee Research from 1999 to 2013 and currently holds an honorary position at UNSW.
Dr Linda Bartolomei is the co-convenor of the UNSW Forced Migration Research Network and is a senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences. 


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