Defending Women's Rights At All Costs

I became a leader because of my dedication to serve, and because I realized there is a big gap in women’s abilities to communicate their needs and participate in decision making.
Susan Grace Duku
Women Refugee Representative, Rhino camp Settlement, Arua

Susan Grace Duku has been a refugee leader since 2017. In December 2018, she was elected as women’s representative to the highest refugee leadership body in Rhino Settlement, Arua District in Northern Uganda. She is also one of two refugees elected in October 2018 to participate in Uganda’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) Steering Group. The Steering Group, led by the Government of Uganda, brings together key stakeholders involved in the refugee response and serves as the key policy and decision-making body for implementation of the CRRF in Uganda

This year, the Global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is focused on ending gender-based violence in the world of work.

Elizabeth Ashamu Deng, Oxfam’s South Sudan Regional Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, spoke with Susan Grace Duku about challenges she has experienced as a female refugee leader and how she uses her leadership role to confront gender-based violence within the refugee settlement.

How and why did you become a leader within the settlement and at the national level?

I arrived in Rhino Settlement from South Sudan in September 2016. Soon after settling, I started voluntary work translating and mobilizing community members for meetings and other activities carried out by international and national organizations in Rhino. In the process of supporting others, I saw clearly all of the community needs—the gaps in services, the high levels of trauma, and the need for good leadership that includes women.

In February 2017 I was elected as the woman representative to the Refugee Welfare Council (RWC) I for Ofua III village. In December 2018, I was elected as woman’s representative to the RWC III, the highest refugee leadership body in Rhino. I am also a leader at the national level—I was elected to represent refugees on the CRRF Steering Group in October 2018.

I became a leader because of my dedication to serve, and because I realized there is a big gap in women’s abilities to communicate their needs and participate in decision making. I also saw that women often don’t access information or get feedback about services in the settlement. Women voted me in because I always speak for them—they saw that I would be the right person to lead them.

What challenges have you faced as a female leader?

There are many. I get many issues with my male colleagues because of my attempts to stand up for women… Sometimes the men threaten me, sometimes they sideline me—like they don’t tell me when they are having meetings. Most of the time I hear about events and dialogues and meetings after they happen---simply because I like to tell the truth about what happens with women in the settlement. My voice sometimes isn’t heard. When I try to give inputs, there is a challenge.

My advocacy on behalf of women and efforts to put things right for them makes me feel at risk, and unprotected. My confidence in my role has made the opposite sex in the leadership resent me, and sometimes threaten to deal with me when back in South Sudan. In general, they tend to treat women’s issues with no respect or dignity.

I don’t get the support I need. I also don’t have resources and support to actually address some of the major challenges I see, like girl child marriage. I feel sidelined from engaging with partners because I’m the only woman in the RWC III. There are limited forums for me to speak with women. There has been no capacity building that could allow me to improve my leadership.

I am a mother of four children, a foster parent to three, and the single head of my household. It’s difficult balancing my family life with my community work, especially because the community work is not paid.

Why are there few women leaders within the refugee settlement?

Women feel unsupported by the men leaders. That’s why most women lag behind and don’t go for leadership. They think that even if they are leaders, they won’t actually be able to speak about their rights, and be heard.

Men are considered for the top positions in the settlement, making the women feel demoralized to lead especially as most of them are uneducated due to the civil war because they have run up and down taking care of children rather than being in school.

Being a refugee leader is also voluntary work without incentives or salary. So women feel its better to help their families and be with their children than offering free services without appreciation.

What are the gender related issues you are working to confront?

I try to listen to women and girls, as most men tend not to listen to their voices within the settlement. I want there to be social change away from traditional beliefs, for example, that women are not to sit around a table with men to discuss issues or socialize.

I am lobbying for more resources to support women to be self-reliant and be empowered through skills training for development.

We need better access to reproductive care services to improve the health of the women in the settlement.

What are your recommendations for increasing and supporting women leadership, addressing the challenges they face? 

Right now, there is only one woman representative on each Refugee Welfare Council. More positions should be opened and reserved for women.

There should be programs to build the capacity of women leaders and equip them with leadership skills to give them confidence. Women’s leadership needs to be recognized, and they should be given equal weight in decision-making. There should be better two-way communication between women and women leaders.

Partners should give more funding to women’s organizations and groups, to help them become self-reliant. There should also be adequate protection measures in place for women leaders.