Women Refugees in Zimbabwe and Lebanon Work to Improve Quality of Life in Camps

Small Group DiscussionFrom October-December 2003, nearly 100 women and girl refugees participated in leadership development workshops organized by WLP and its partners Machreq/Maghreb Gender Linking and Information Project (MACMAG GLIP) in Lebanon and the Women's Self-Promotion Movement (WSPM) in Zimbabwe. MACMAG GLIP and WSPM facilitated workshops that provided training in effective communication, collaborative decision-making, and techniques for articulating and developing individual and group projects. Working together in the workshop setting, diverse groups of refugee women learned to recognize their own leadership capabilities and empowered themselves to improve the quality of life in the refugee camps, enhance their status as refugees in their hosts countries, and address conflict resolution and peace-building in their home countries.

In October 2003, MACMAG GLIP, WLP's partner in Lebanon, held a leadership training workshop with a group of Palestinian refugees and other women, the majority of whom live in the Bourj Al Barajneh and Sabra & Shatila refugee camps. MACMAG GLIP creates opportunities for women to learn and exchange information about women's rights through networks of grassroots NGOs across the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to conducting trainings for women, MACMAG GLIP develops communication material and resources in Arabic and other regional languages that focus on women's human rights, gender, and development.

The leadership workshop was held at the Vocational Center in the Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, where most of the workshop participants, aged 17 to 23, take classes or participate in trainings. Although participants initially had difficulties listening to one another and giving others the time and space to voice their opinions, as the workshop progressed and participants became more familiar with a participatory leadership style, they engaged in open, respectful dialogue in which everyone's voice was included. They were soon taking active roles in the workshop and encouraging one another during session activities and exercises. Working in small groups, participants engaged in detailed analysis of handbook sessions and discussed how the themes and issues applied to their situation as Palestinian refugees. They debated such topics as the use of gender biased words in language and expressions. Participants practiced using gender neutral words and discussed the difference it made in their perceptions of social interactions, personal relationships, events, jobs, and news items. Toward the end of the workshop, they worked together to formulate hypothetical grassroots community organizations- each with a different task such as education, health care, or environmental protection- with the goal of enhancing the status of Palestinian refugees and improving life in the refugee camps. By working cooperatively to define shared goals and to design a plan of action, participants practiced their individual leadership skills and learned how to apply the information and skills gained during the workshop. Participants plan to organize follow-up meetings to support one another as they introduce these new concepts into their daily lives, and to their families and communities. The Daily Star, one of Lebanon's leading newspapers, featured a story about this workshop in its October 31, 2003, online edition.

Workshop Participants in ZimbabweIn Zimbabwe, WLP's partner WSPM, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing training and education for disadvantaged women in Zimbabwe, often works with women refugees at the Tongogara Refugee Camp, where leadership training workshops have been in high demand since WSPM first held a training there in January 2003. During December 2003, WSPM held three leadership workshops at Tongogara, which is home to over 800 displaced people from Sub-Saharan countries including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Rwanda, and the Sudan. The camp has extremely high levels of poverty and unemployment among its refugees, who rely on monthly food distribution from humanitarian organizations to survive. Since June 2003, allegations of unequal distribution of food and other goods have resulted in continual tension, protests, and some violent incidents between Rwandan refugees and those from the DRC. The majority of recent workshop participants were women and girl refugees from Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC, aged 14 to 45, with a minority of men included in each training. Although some of the men who participated in the workshops were initially unsupportive of women's rights to full equality, during discussions they committed to work to enhance gender sensitivity and equality in their families and communities by teaching young girls and boys the importance of gender equality, respect, dialogue, and tolerance.

The majority of participants in one leadership workshop, which included some Zimbabwean women, had high levels of education in fields such as International Relations, Business, Medicine, and Law. They discussed topics such as the promotion of sustainable peace and development in Rwanda, concluding that to achieve those goals, there is a strong need for forgiveness, good governance, and respect for human dignity. They added that the various Rwanda ethnic groups must consider each other as equals and together develop and work toward a common vision of peace and development for their country. Participants plan to apply what they learned during the workshop to develop conflict resolution and peace-building skills trainings, to help them to better cope with conflicts in the camp and in their home countries in the future.

Participants in another workshop, a number of whom were orphans, had very limited education, having attended only primary school, or in some cases, a few years of secondary school. Although they initially expressed surprise that uneducated and unemployed women like themselves would be invited to attend a leadership training workshop, they made great strides in developing greater self-confidence during the workshop and eventually felt comfortable participating freely. At the conclusion of the workshop they stated, "Now we know that we are all leaders...We have to work hard in unity and with common objectives towards the improvement of our educational, social, and economic status. Putting into practice everything we have learned from this workshop may be our way to success." Projects developed during the workshop include a plan to create a Literacy Center for adults and implement professional training courses in the camp.

The final group of workshop participants included a number of unmarried and widowed mothers, most of whom had completed high school and had some professional training. Although most participants initially had difficulty identifying themselves as leaders, after only a few workshop sessions, they began to articulate their own definitions of a leader, share their personal experiences, and plan projects to address their concerns. For example, workshop participants plan to work together to establish small-scale income generating projects in the camp to alleviate poverty and unemployment. Furthermore, participants from Rwanda and the DRC were able to accept their differences, communicate, and work together with other workshop participants to establish a committee- composed of women representatives of each nationality and religion in the camp - to pursue building a common vision of peace-making and conflict resolution in their families and in Tongogara Refugee Camp.

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