Refugee Women Resilience Boosted in Response to Covid-19: Bidi Bidi Settlement in Uganda

The Golden Star Women Tailoring group making masks.

The outbreak of coronavirus and consequential lockdown has brought businesses and livelihoods to a standstill with gross effect on the vulnerable communities especially women.

As the World Refugee Day is commemorated under the theme ‘Every Action Counts’ , it is imperative to shine light on women’s resilience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Golden star women tailoring group located in Bidi Bidi settlement zone, village 13 in Yumbe District, is a typical example. Their story is a true reflection of the old adage; every dark cloud has a silver lining, thanks to CARE International in Uganda with support from UN Women and a recent boost by UNHCR.

The group is among the 34 livelihood groups CARE International, worked with to identify business enterprises following a training of over 1000 refugee women from host communities on cash for work. These were supported with startup capital and items for the livelihood groups during the COVID-19 pandemic which included agricultural tools like pangas, hoes, wheel barrows, slashes, watering cans, spray pumps and non-agricultural items like tailoring machines, grinding mills, and saloon items. Construction materials for the business premises were also distributed to the groups.

Women and girls “suffer the most in crises, and are very vulnerable to gender-based violence,”  Apollo Gazira, the Country Director of CARE Uganda told SoftPower News, adding that they are increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, CARE Uganda provided in-person support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps. While Uganda faces a lockdown and movement restrictions, CARE Uganda has been granted humanitarian exemption, allowing staff to travel in and out of the camp as needed. But assistance to survivors is limited and, in some cases, has shifted to phone support.

With COVID-19 social behavioral changes that include regular hand washing with soap, social distancing and face mask wearing, the group seized an opportunity to not only eke a living and improve their livelihoods during this pandemic but also support the prevention of COVID-19 in their community by producing face masks.

In a letter dated June 11, 2020 by UNHCR Yumbe sub office, Golden star women tailoring group has been engaged through the Cash for work approach to produce 50,000 masks at a fee of UGX 500 per face mask. UNHCR will provide the group with fabric material for making the quality masks that must conform to the WHO and Ministry of Health standards.

“I am a 39-year-old married woman with five children. I thank CARE International and UN WOMEN for bringing for us these tailoring machines which are now helping us; before I used to tailor my clothes and sell because there was market but when Coronavirus came, all markets were closed, people lost money and even my savings reduced. I decided to come and work with my group members to produce masks for our community to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus in and also make some money to improve our wellbeing during and after the pandemic,” said Rose Kideni Wani.

The group comprises of 30 South Sudanese refugee women who started as a VSLA group in 2018 and expanded into a bigger business of tailoring in 2020 with support from CARE International under the AWEAR project funded by UN WOMEN. These women were supported with 15 sewing machines and material to help them generate income for their economic empowerment. Initially, these women were actively engaged in VSLA activities with various individual small scale businesses like buying and selling produce, making pan cakes, tailoring, vegetable selling and many others.

Others are famers who earn from farm work and casual work.

“I am 28 years old, married with four children and living in village 13 zone 3. We thank CARE and UN WOMEN for this big support. When I stopped making Koboyo (pan cakes), I was so stressed but am happy now am saving lives in my community, people here cannot go to Yumbe town to buy masks so my participation in this activities makes me very happy that I can protect my people from COVID-19 and also generate some money as a group which will help our household in the future,” said Charity Kiden.

Speaking during the distribution of the items, Acidri Richard, the Office of Prime Minister (OPM) Community Services Assistant at Bidibidi refugee settlement urged the women to use the items productively to generate money and remain united to be able to achieve the objective of the livelihood enterprises.

“The Income Generating Activity (IGA) items package is so comprehensive that it will also help in prevention of COVID-19 among community members, since it comprises of hand washing facilities”.

OPM and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have supported access to land for refugee women to engage in agriculture. 86 acres of land were recently allocated to five women groups in Bidibidi Settlement, to enable them engage in farm activities and boost their livelihood activities in response to the negative impact of COVID-19 on household incomes.

“As UNHCR we really appreciate CARE International and UN WOMEN for the great initiative created for this group of women. Looking at this COVID-19 crisis, this is really a very good intervention to empower women in our community to be able to positively contribute to efforts of community development and fight against COVID-19,” said Munu Innocent Lawoko, the senior Livelihood Associate –UNHCR Bidi bidi settlement.

She added: “My appeal to golden star women is that they should utilize this opportunity and create more opportunities for finances in future to improve livelihood in their households.”

Uganda’s open-border policy to refugees is lauded by the UN as the best in the world. The country hosts more than 1.4 million refugees and it is hailed for permitting the refugees to engage in production and settle among Ugandan communities.

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