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

Session 6. How to harness lived experience

A Definition * B Background * C Tools & Exercises * D Stakeholders Exercises

Aim of the Session

The aim of this session is to ensure that the voices of ALL refugees are heard, including those who are still in refugee camps and urban sites, those who do not speak English, who might be pre-literate, those who are socially isolated and for various reasons live on the fringes of their own communities.

Suggested Timing for the Session

The exercise Gaining Access to Diverse Groups, will take 1 hour, the Identity Labels exercise 2 hours. We suggest that you allocate a minimum of half a day to undertake the matrix exercise, and a further half day to do storyboarding.

A. Lived Experience – A Useful Definition

Valuing and acknowledging refugee lived experience is an approach that places refugees and their lived experiences at the centre of thinking. This refugee lived experience approach requires that policy, program development, service delivery and decision-making processes ensures refugees can actively participate and influence the outcome of their hopes, aspirations, and dreams.


B. Background reading on the challenges and value identified in accessing and respecting the full range of ‘Lived experience

The people who are recognized as community leaders in refugee situations are not always the ones who would have led the community in the past, and may lack the appropriate knowledge to navigate the context of displacement and alien social structures. Some who take gatekeeper roles revert to old power bases, which often exclude or negatively impact women and girls (Pittaway, Muli and Shteir 2009).

Honouring the Experience of ALL Refugees, Women, Girls and Members of Diverse Groups.

Sections from From Rhetoric to Reality: Achieving Gender Equality for Refugee Women and Girls, (2018) Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei WRC Research Paper No. 3


There is a danger in focusing only on the vulnerabilities of women and girls, as it can create a discourse of helpless victims. There has been a movement in the past decade to change this focus and to recognize the strengths of refugee women and girls: they are also resilient, and have immense social capital and capabilities. Despite the layers of discrimination, they are not merely passive victims. In many camps and refugee sites, women run crèches (daycares) for children, arrange care for orphaned or lost children, provide safe spaces for women who have experienced SGBV, manage scarce rations to ensure that families are fed, run small businesses to support their families, organize basic schools, and provide protection (Bartolomei et al. 2016; Olivius 2014). Much of this work is done without funding or external support. In the absence of men, women take on all roles in the family and community. Women have formal skills, as well as a wide range of informal skills, and have a huge capacity. They are also capable of keen analysis of the problems experienced in camps and cities, and of formulating potential solutions. However, because of their minority status, and the discourse of vulnerability, their capacities, skills and abilities often go unrecognized. Women are silenced by limited access to representation at every level, by culture, tokenism, gender stereotypes and lack of funding for targeted programs. Therefore, to focus only on strengths is to ignore the widespread challenges, discrimination and abuse that refugee women and girls survive. They are simultaneously strong and resourceful, victims and marginalized. They usually survive, despite the vulnerable situations in which they find themselves. An adequate response involves addressing structural vulnerabilities that result from pervasive gender inequalities, as well as creating opportunities for strengths to be capitalized.

The other crucial element in achieving gender equality is the recognition that refugee communities are not homogeneous and that certain groups, including people with a disability, ethnic and religious minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI)[1] individuals face additional discriminations. This analysis informed the development of UNHCR’s recently released Age, Gender and Diversity (AGD) policy. Designed to ensure that all refugees have equal access to their rights, it recognizes that intersecting personal differences based on age, gender and diversity affect people’s experiences of forced migration (UNHCR 2018b). It is therefore imperative that policies not focus solely on gender inequality, but also recognize the way in which gender inequality is compounded by inequalities based on race, dis/ability, religion and sexuality (Verloo 2006). Core to both the new AGD policy, which includes the updated Five Commitments to refugee women and girls, and to the global compact on refugees, is an emphasis on the central role that refugee communities, including women, must play in assessing needs and developing solutions.

Refugees are minorities wherever they go. They flee their own countries and are seldom welcomed for the long term in countries of asylum. Refugee law and policy is either interpreted to suit the politics of the country of asylum or sometimes ignored by countries from both the refugees, and in particular refugee women, are seen as burdens, not potential contributors and economic actors. The reasons vary from country to country. They include a lack of resources and resentment from developing countries about the high expectations and often low levels of funding from developed countries. These contentious issues have had a strong influence on the UNHCR’s ongoing formal consultations with states to develop the final text of the global compact on refugees. With many countries from the Global South (such as Iran, which has hosted large numbers of Afghan refugees for decades) strongly resisting the use of the language of “responsibility sharing” and arguing instead that, in the absence of sufficient donor support, refugee hosting can only be regarded as a “burden” (Pittaway 2018). There is anger and fear from host populations if they perceive that the refugee population is using the country’s scarce resources or receiving more assistance than they are. This politics is also mediated by ideological opposition to sexual and reproductive rights by several states, including the United States and the Holy See (Benson Gold and Starrs 2017; Coates et al. 2014). Some states and humanitarian aid providers have noted that principles, laws, policies, and best practice guidelines developed at headquarters are not always easy or possible to implement at a local level in geographically and socio-politically diverse refugee sites (Pittaway, Bell and Bartolomei 2017).

It is also important to recognize that culture is not rigid, but is a fluid concept and changes over time. Prolonged refugee experiences create a layer of “refugee culture” that overlays original culture, often reinforcing old practices that were or are changing in the country of origin. This is often a defence mechanism against the loss of power and place. The people who are recognized as community leaders in refugee situations are not always the ones who would have led the community in the past, and may lack the appropriate knowledge to navigate the context of displacement and alien social structures. Some who take gatekeeper roles revert to old power bases, which often exclude or negatively impact women and girls (Pittaway, Muli and Shteir 2009).

As explored above, the discourse used to discuss refugee women and girls is usually embedded in the cultural, religious and ideological frameworks of patriarchal societies, both in the country of origin and in receiving countries. This is reinforced by the attitudes of NGO staff and a failure to implement UNHCR’s AGD policy at the field level (Women’s Refugee Commission 2016). Women are viewed as passive victims, and as beneficiaries rather than contributors, and the lack of funding and support for refugee women’s community-based organizations further entrenches their marginalization (Olivius 2014). This is reflected in both the political and ideological positions of much domestic law, policy and service provision and has devastating impact on the protection of women and girls.

It is critically important that we identify ways to respect and harness the lived experience of all refugees.

1. The term LGBTI is used, in the context of this paper, to describe people affected by discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. However, the authors acknowledge that use of LGBTI as an umbrella term is contested by some groups. For example, see www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sexual-orientation-gender-identity-intersex-status/publications/resilient-individuals.

C. Tools to ensure the inclusion of lived experience of the majority of refugees

Ci.  Gaining access to diverse groups

A major challenge in reaching out to include refugees from very diverse backgrounds, is to gain access to groups who are not usually included in meetings organised by stakeholders who have power.  This includes people from all levels of formal organisations, and gate-keepers in the refugee communities.  Community consultations in which a wide range of people are invited is one way to access diverse groups (see here).  Another is to seek out groups and organisations which target women and girls, GBV, LGBTQI+ communities, refugees with a disability, youth, children, older refugees and other diverse groups and make sure they get a chance to have their voices heard. This takes time, resources and effort, and often meets with resistance from some people who wish to preserve the status quo.  However, if we really want to acknowledge and respect ‘lived experience’ this has to be done. The following tool will help identify the steps which need to be taken.

Groups which are not usually consulted about their opinions and ideas in this siteHow can we contact them and invite them to engage with usWhat support might they need to respond positively. (e.g. childcare, interpreters, transport, training about meeting procedures etc)
Members of LGBTQI Communities  
Older People  
People with a physical disability  
People with an intellectual disability  
Single mothers  
Others you can name  

Cii and Ciii. In order to harness refugee lived experience at all levels, The Matrix Exercise, and Story Boards can be used. Using story boards allows for engagement of refugees who cannot read and write but whose lived experience can provide a huge body of knowledge to inform service provision.

Cii. Identifying Barriers to acknowledging lived experience for diverse and isolated women

Ciii. These are suggested story board questions

  • What are some of the barriers experienced by women and girls in having their voices heard in refugee situations?
  • How does this make them feel?
  • What is the impact of them not sharing their knowledge and experience?
  • What needs to be done to address these barriers? What support, and resources would the groups need to feel confident to speak out?
  • Who can help with this?
  • What would be the positive outcomes of this happening?

Civ The exercises on Identity Layers and Identity Labels in the AGD Resource Kit are also useful to enable stakeholders, including refugees, examine the impact these layers and labels have on the ability of refugee women to be included in decision making and have their voices heard.

D. Exercises to do with community groups and other stakeholders

The same exercises are equally applicable to all groups.

Once this information is analysed, and collated, a rich source of evidence and potential solutions based on a broad spectrum of lived experience will have been collected.  This will be invaluable to inform program design and strategic planning.