One refugee in Uganda is using her voice to raise those of 70 million others globally

Susan campaigning for a leadership position in the Rhino Refugee Settlement, Uganda. Jose Mario/Oxfam
If I had the chance to address those delegates, I would urge them to ensure that refugee girls are able to realize their full potential.
Susan Grace Duku
Refugee Women and Youth Aid
By Susan Grace Duku

My name is Susan Grace Duku. I am 33 years old and I have spent 21 of those years as a refugee.

This week we learned that the number of people in situations like mine - forced from their homes because of violence or persecution – has passed 70 million worldwide. In responding to this unprecedented challenge, it is paramount that refugees ourselves participate in the decisions that directly affect us and in efforts to find solutions.

Refugee Women and Youth Aid They also face challenges leaving their home countries, finding asylum in a new place, and in living alongside host communities. Here in Uganda, many have sought refuge in the country for the second or even third time due to repeated conflicts in their home countries, including my native South Sudan. I first came here in 1992, when I was only seven years old. I came again in 2016.

Being repeatedly uprooted and seeking protection has given us years of experience in how to live harmoniously with host communities, how to find creative ways to make ends meet and how to support each other. The pain and sorrow we have endured also drive our commitment to peace - the most durable solution.

In December, world leaders will come together at the Global Refugee Forum and commit to concrete steps to improve the lives of refugees. If I had the chance to address those delegates, I would urge them to ensure that refugee girls are able to realize their full potential. I would use the example of the prominent women delegates in the room and ask whether these women would be seated among us if they had not been supported through education, reproductive health services, and other related support. I would advocate for peace and for governments to embrace tolerance, accountability, and reconciliation to prevent conflicts that result in refugee situations. I would ask them to support refugees to be agents of peace.

At the decision table, abroad and at home

But refugees should not only participate in international discussions – they should also contribute to decision-making at the local level. In Uganda, refugees have platforms through which they can express their challenges and ideas. They democratically elect members of community leadership committees, who raise their voices about any recommendations or grievances. There is also a forum of refugees that engages in debates with the Government. I have set up an organization, called Refugee Women and Youth Aid, that brings together 17 groups of women to share knowledge, skills, and experience.

There are lessons here for other countries, but there are also challenges. It is still too rare for refugees to address leaders at the highest levels, who are in a position to change our lives. As a woman refugee leader, I have often been left out of important meetings within the settlement. The male folk still hold women in low esteem due to long-standing cultural beliefs that discriminate against women. Because of such patriarchal beliefs, refugee women and girls need extra support to effectively participate in the design, implementation, and review of refugee programs.

As a leader, I call on the Ugandan Government and its humanitarian partners to prioritize proper education at all levels for refugees. Having large numbers of displaced young people frustrated or bored because they can’t go to school is a recipe for continued conflict, violence and under development. Refugees also yearn for work opportunities so they can supplement humanitarian aid and sustain themselves. Some women are forced to trek large distances to find safe water, firewood and construction materials, and sometimes there are conflicts with host communities over these resources. These problems could be solved through tree planting and proper use of natural resources such as land for agriculture and alternative sources of fuel like briquettes. There should be more initiatives to bring refugees and host communities together, to help reduce tensions and suspicions that can trigger violence.  

None of these challenges can be solved without the active participation of refugee, including women. We refugees are not responsible for our displacement. We did not choose to become refugees and we face many difficulties. We need to be included in spaces where our voices can be heard, and we must be equally represented in decision-making processes.