Refugee Women: Key to the Global Compact on Refugees Logo

Developed by Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway and Dr Linda Bartolomei, Graphics by Damayanthi Muthukumarage, Website by Anja Wendt


This Resource Kit is a result of the multi-year collaborative action-based research project “Refugee Women and Girls – Key to the Global Compact on Refugees” undertaken in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand

The Refugee Women and Girls – Key to the Global Compact on Refugees project has been continuously funded by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade since 2018. It has contributed to facilitating and monitoring the implementation of gender commitments made in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Underpinned by UNHCR’s Age, Gender and Diversity (AGD) Policy, these commitments seek to improve international protection for refugee women and girls, support gender equality, women’s participation and leadership, and address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The project explores ways in which the high-level principles articulated in the GCR are impacted by local socio/political circumstances, and addresses the challenges noted by many key stakeholders, that ‘one size does not fit all’ when designing solutions.

The multi-stakeholder project is led by researchers Linda Bartolomei and Eileen Pittaway from UNSW’s Forced Migration Research Network (FMRN). With a team of refugee women from the five UN regions, they undertook the Gender Audit of UNHCR’s Thematic meetings which informed the development of the GCR. Working in partnership with refugee women, academics, service providers and UNHCR, the project has developed and trialled a suite of implementation tools and monitoring and evaluation strategies in three refugee hosting countries in the Asia Pacific, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, and at UNHCR in Geneva. It uses the concept of intersectionality and the UNHCR Age, Gender and Diversity policy as a framework for analysing barriers to and strategies to increase gender equality. (Refugee Women and Girls, Key to the Global Compact on Refugees), Project partners include: In Malaysia, Tenaganita, the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI), Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM), the Gender Studies Programme, Universiti Malaya (UM), UNHCR, Women led organisations from the Yemini, South Sudanese, Somali, Rohingya, Burmese, Pakistani and Afghan communities. In Thailand they were joined by the Karen and Karenni and Muslim Women’s Organisations, the Border Consortium (TBC) and Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University. In Bangladesh the main partners were Relief International (RI), the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University, Women led organisations in Cox’s Bazar camps and UNHCR. Two key Regional organisations, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) and Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR) also contributed to the project.

These resources, are outcomes of the project based on evaluation and analysis by all partners. They are informed by the concept of the intersectionality of multiple forms of discrimination as a framework for analysing gender equality. It examines how socially and culturally constructed categories, such as race, class, socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability, intersect to contribute to systematic social inequality. Importantly, it addresses the fact that in every site in which Pittaway and Bartolomei have worked in this project and in 22 other countries over the 25 years, women have identified rape, gender-based violence and sexual harassment (SGBV) as THE major barrier to participation, and gender equality in all aspects of their lives.

A very obvious, but still key finding was that that every refugee context is different and there are unique political and socio-economic challenges in each specific site including the ideological, cultural stance and power held by key stakeholders. When seeking to address the gender commitments laid out in the GCR and the social constructs which underpin them, we are seeking to change the status quo and challenge the accepted power structures which so often dominate the humanitarian and development sector. Successful participation means ceding power from the dominant group of stakeholders, i.e. host and donor governments, and humanitarian aid providers at all levels, and sharing it with the refugee communities.

In each site in which we worked there was a clear message from the women, that they saw the way forward through strengthening and supporting women’s refugee led organisations. This was clearly demonstrated when these women were very often the first and most effective responders during the COVID-19 crisis.

Major findings demonstrated that while we often talk the talk of inclusion, participation, refugee-led, human rights, lived experience, diversity and gender equality, which are the major pillars of the gender commitments in the GCR these are rarely clearly defined and the obstacles to achieving them are not clearly understood. (Definitions of these terms are explored in each section of the resource).

Obstacles faced when supporting women’s work in unregistered and registered refugee led organisations addressed in the Resource Kit tools.

The following questions have been identified as needing answers and analysis in each site and solutions identified with all key stakeholders.  (Click the highlighted text for more detail)

  1. What are the major structural issues which impact unregistered and registered refugee-led organisations?
  2. What are the major social barriers to women refugee-led work?
  3. What are the major barriers to gender equality?
  4. How can we implement an Age, Gender and Diversity approach?
  5. How does Sexual and gender-based violence impact on women’s potential participation?
  6. How do we ensure that the lived experience of diverse refugees is heard?
  7. How can we include refugee men in efforts to achieve gender equality and ensure their needs are also met?  
  8. What is meaningful participation and how can this be achieved?
  9. How can we establish effective partnerships, and build trust and respect?
  10. How do we address the power of privilege – “White”, Gender and Class privilege?
  11. How can we advance human rights-based development models of service provision which incorporate the key principles of community development?
  12. How can we incorporate an intersectional approach, including sustainability and succession planning, into Strategic Planning to achieve effective implementation of the GCR’s gender commitments.

The response needed is contingent upon the socio-political context in each site including the ideological, cultural stance and power held by key stakeholders, the acknowledgement of ‘white’, gender and ‘class’ privilege and how this is used or abused. In refugee contexts this is even more challenging given the loss of legal rights and citizenship.

It is imperative that further progress be made in shifting the focus and approach of aid provision in refugee contexts from humanitarian to rights based and inclusive development approaches. Unless the social and political issues which maintain the status quo are identified and addressed in each site, addressing these goals will continue to be challenging.

This project has provided evidence that this can be achieved. The Resource Kit was developed based on a major finding that an easy-to-use set of tools was needed in order to enable stakeholders to make a realistic assessment of what is achievable in each refugee context in which they work. One size does not fit all but the same principles can be addressed in different ways in very diverse contexts to achieve satisfactory outcomes. The tools in the kit are designed to assist in identifying the local challenges and potential ways forward. Without this level of analysis, it can be difficult to respond effectively.

An Example of how this can work

Three Different Countries, Three Models of ‘Participation’

The findings from the project ‘Refugee Women and Girls – Key to the Compact on Refugees’ have provided evidence that the same principles can be addressed in different ways in very different contexts to achieve satisfactory outcomes. We have identified three very different models from dissimilar contexts, which are viable and achievable in each site and do not raise unrealistic expectations. 

The activities developed with the very diverse groups of women, range from those that are fully refugee led work to those that are refugee informed in order to provide pathways for women to build their skills and experience to assume greater leadership roles in future. We have faced challenges even with these models, and there is often some overlap between the three. However, we are working with the Women Refugee-led organisations (WRLOs), both formal and informal, and other stakeholders to address these challenges. The three models we are working with so far are:

1. Fully refugee- women led, which means that WRLOs are able to receive and manage their own funding.
2. A collaborative model, where WRLOs work in partnership with trained supportive local service providers, including UNHCR, but design and deliver the services themselves.
3. Refugee Informed (with some refugee led elements), where WRLOs and refugee women’s groups are consulted about the services to be provided and are involved in service delivery, as far as the local conditions allow.

These are the three programs from which we have drawn these models.


The project in Thailand was successful because it was run by well-established women’s groups, who have been operating in the camps and ethnic areas in Myanmar for over 20 years. They have received funding and training over that period and are skilled at designing and delivering programs across the camps. A major gain from this project was the inclusion and funding of three small emerging Muslim Women’s CBOs, who have responded exceptionally well. The auspicing support by INGO The Border Consortium (TBC) was critical for them to receive the funding, but they had no influence on the projects run by the women’s groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the networks and knowledge of the women’s groups enabled them to respond to the needs of the communities despite the huge resource shortage. They already used a participatory approach and incorporated the small funding from this project to respond more effectively, including supporting new emerging minority groups. They also undertook effective evaluations of the projects impacts and made considered recommendations for new projects. 

SGBV Response – The women’s groups already had established SGBV response models, including a network of safehouses and used the project funding to gain access to vulnerable women to extend the offer of assistance. Furthermore they trained their network of volunteers in the camps to provide additional psychosocial support for women survivors, and requested a new training of trainer model on how to assist families who had a member suicide, or to support women contemplating suicide, which was delivered via zoom to their network


The project in Malaysia ticks nearly all of the boxes for best practice. A group of local NGOs worked together with UNHCR and the women’s groups to clearly identify the range of problems experienced in Kuala Lumpur and respond to these. Trust was built between all parties, who reported benefiting and learning from the collaboration. COVID-19 caused major disruptions in the lives of refugees in Kuala Lumpur, and the women’s groups were amongst the first responders. The diverse communities had very different needs, resources and capacities, but the project was able to encompass these, because the women in each community group defined their own immediate needs and programs required. They also undertook effective evaluations of the projects impacts and made considered recommendations for new projects.

The women reported feeling more empowered, valued and positive and are planning for further business opportunities in the future. All wish to continue to work with the project to build skills and empower other women. Equally, UNHCR and the local NGO partners are all committed to the program, citing positive learning for their own practice, as well as for the women.  All groups wish to continue to be engaged in this model of service provision. There was consistent and positive support from our local academic partner, with on-going involvement.

SGBV Response – The women reported endemic sexual abuse in all areas of their lives, and the need for increased protection and security. They made links to the need for safe and adequate livelihoods as a way to counter SGBV.  Some groups took part in training to work in a safe house for women. Others were trained to provide peer support for vulnerable women. There were significantly improved relationships with UNHCR and NGOs and collaborative referral pathways for SGBV response and prevention were developed.


The initial consultative process in Bangladesh was extremely successful, with 16 separate consultations held across the camps covering both the long-stay refugee population and recent arrivals. Several of these were held by refugee women, UN agencies, INGOs and local NGOs[1] who had trained with the researchers. The women suggested solutions regarding participation and addressing SGBV. Before we could move to engage with these, COVID-19 hit, and the camps were locked down and many of the INGOs and NGOs were sent away from the area. The first round of small COVID-19 programs were very constrained by the restrictions placed by the Bangladeshi Government. Major challenges also included the change of relevant senior staff in UN and International agencies. International staff who were supportive of the project also moved on and there were internal staff changes in our academic partner.

The second round of projects organised by INGO Relief International (RI), who had been very involved in the project from the start and led the consultations in some of the camps, were extremely successful in addressing the aims of the project. They named the challenges and discussed them with the women refugees. As far as was possible within the multiple layers of administrative bureaucracy, the refugee women received some excellent training, and were involved in designing and delivering small local projects. There was consistent and positive support from our local academic partner, with on-going involvement.

SGBV Response – There was full disclosure of the extent of SGBV in the camps, with analysis of existing services by women participants in consultations. In the second phase of small projects, actions were decided by women to train refugee women support workers (‘volunteers’) to respond to the women survivors of SGBV, and models of engagement with, and reporting to camp authorities by refugee women being developed and trialled.

For more information about the projects, please see the following reports and video. (links to be added)

We are sure that there are several other workable models. Please contact us if you have a model you would like to contribute to this website.

[1] UNHCR, IOM, UNICEF, Relief International, Action Aid, Danish Refugee Council, BRAC, NGO Forum for Public Health, Technical Assistance Inc.