Irene Omondi has spent her career as a field worker for UNHCR, working in Afghanistan, Jordan, and now Mozambique, where she is Head of Office. She is deeply passionate and dedicated to empowering refugee women and girls.

Irene joined the Leading Women Fund special online briefing last month from Mozambique and shared her insights on the impact displacement has on women and how humanitarian assistance, particularly cash assistance, enables them and their families to live more secure and safe lives.

Hear what she had to say to our LWF community below.

Drawing on your experience in Afghanistan, Jordan and now Mozambique, can you talk to us about the challenges refugee women and girls face?

In many displacements, the most affected people are women, they are left to head households and care for their children.

Talking from experience, they may find they have other vulnerable family members to take care of, such as persons with disability, elderly people, family members that really need care and support so there's a very big burden on women, especially refugee women and girls during displacement, whether it's in the country or outside of the country.

Women also face the challenge of being able to access basic needs. To be able to get proper shelter, paying rent, taking their children to school, making decisions that for us, in a normal setting, we find very normal.

As you can see, there are many challenges that women face in their everyday life as refugees outside their country, being mothers and the young girls who just want to grow up normal and to be part of the society, to grow up and have their dreams and their visions realised.

Mariam fled Aleppo, Syria to Jordan in 2012 with her six children. Ongoing violence and airstrikes destroyed their neighbourhood and gravely injured her son Mohammad, who is now paralysed and requires a wheelchair. Mariam and her family depend on monthly cash assistance from UNHCR to meet needs. © UNHCR/Hannah Maule-ffinch

Irene is the Head of Office in Mozambique and has spent her career focussed on the empowerment on women and girls in displaced situations. She says, “When people are not in the survival mode then they're able to thrive, then they're able to give more.”
© UNHCR/Irene Omondi

What would life be like if there wasn't humanitarian support or programs for these women and children?

Speaking from my experience, and providing support to refugee women and girls, 99 per cent of all recipients of cash assistance or humanitarian assistance, they all tell us that their living conditions and daily life improved significantly.

So to answer the question, let's just reverse it. The answer is, 99 per cent of people who are beneficiaries of humanitarian support, whether its cash that is given in terms of cash support, will continue to live in disparity, the truth is, without humanitarian support.

From your experience in Jordan, what difference would $230 every four weeks make to refugee women from the money coming from the Leading Women Fund?

It’s amazing what that money could do. Taking care of the basic needs of women so they’re able to pay rent, utilities, being able to buy clothes for the children.

One of the things the women kept telling me is that their dignity is given back to them by being able to take this decision by being able to live in a house and not being in survival mode all the time.

And so, for us it might look to be a very small amount of money. I always say that $10 is a walk into a fast food store, getting a burger or getting an ice cream, it is not the same for a woman out there who is a recipient of cash. It helps them to continue sending their children to school.

When people are not in the survival mode they're able to thrive; they're able to give more.

What do you think the wider impact of cash assistance has on the community that the refugee women are in?

The peaceful coexistence with the host community, the refugees are living in the same community with other Jordanians so when they're able to pay rent on time, or when they're also able to be at peace, this really encourages a peaceful coexistence.

A large number of displaced people are in developing country and mid-level countries, so it helps that they can give back to the community.

But also, what many women are reporting is that they feel they are not pressured with those basic needs every day, trying to think ‘what am I going to feed the children today, is my child going to go to school tomorrow?’.

They are able to think better and I can attest to this. They are joining more empowerment programs and various livelihood programs so they're able to thrive and this is the investment that I'm talking about – it's really an investment to the community.

For me it's such a big return and I'm really quite honoured working with UNHCR working as Head of Office, to be able to see this every day.

In terms of the cash programs, women say that their lives are getting better and better. And this is because their psychological level is really improving and they are able to give more and to give better to their family.

They can buy things for the house, if they have medical needs, they can go to the hospital, if they have to buy school supplies to ensure that children go to school, and even just the ability to buy children a snack for school.

Mariam and two of her children draw pictures in the courtyard of their home in Jordan. © UNHCR/Hannah Maule-ffinch

“This is an investment on a human being and you never lose, you never lose giving to another human, you see it.”

Learn more about the Leading Women Fund and how you can support women and children who have been forced to flee. 

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