“… refugee women have no say when it comes to issues in their communities or even in their houses. I want people to see this picture and give a woman a chance to speak out and be listened to because they have a lot going on in their lives.”, Congolese refugee in Uganda
In December 2022, Pan African Development Education and Advocacy Programme (PADEAP) Uganda began a pilot of the Proof of Concept (PoC) project in Kampala.
A guiding tenet of the Uganda PoC is to try to decolonize our ways of working within research, to challenge the power differentials and hierarchies that often explicitly and implicitly pervade the relationships between researchers and those they research. The first step is to see the research as a process in which the participants should be involved from design to dissemination, ensuring not only their voices are heard but, also, their aspirations for what the project can achieve are considered from project inception. This may seem an obvious statement but, while many participatory arts-based methods come wrapped in a narrative of emancipation and justice for marginalized communities, pressures on researchers can often lead to the transformative potential of the methods being overlooked and deprioritized. The Uganda project is using PhotoVoice, a now widely employed and recognized method for community empowerment. However, within this body of work, the exhibition space - the primary means of affecting change - remains the least understood or explored part of the research methodology, for example.
This initial stage of the Uganda work then was to explore and challenge the premise of the team’s ideas for the research, as well as the methodology, with a group of participants. For the work, PADEAP Uganda have partnered with SOS Nguvu ni moja, a refugee led women’s organization. Participants are all members. Started in 2019 by a group of women refugees from Congo, many of whom had been victims of sexual exploitation. The organization works with hundreds of women, girls, and children who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, especially sexual and gender-based violence. SOS Nguvu ni moja’s mission is to provide a safe community for these young women to learn, grow, feel protected and become leaders.
Daphne Atuhaire, lead researcher at PADEAP Uganda, conducted a week-long workshop and training on the use and effectiveness of PhotoVoice as an empowerment tool. The training took place from the 8th to the 11th of December 2022. The aim of the workshops were to explore the potential and help build the capacities of refugees to express their experiences and situations visually using the PhotoVoice methodology. The plan for the work is that those going through this round learn the method to then be able to train their peers as the team expand the work into the wider refugee community.
The training entailed both practical sessions’ on how to use the camera and take photographs as well as a theoretical and analytical lens, focusing on photographic interpretation and drawing of conclusions from the pictures being taken – from the perspective of the person taking them but also discussions as a group. The workshop ambition was to encourage the participants to better appreciate the power of pictorial messages and how they can be used as an empowerment tool to question and address social injustices important to the group.
As a research team, we come with our own ideas and expectations, setting the research agenda through the questions and issues we pose. A key outcome of this pilot was to purposefully challenge those understandings in conversation with the participants. Leading with the open question, what are the main problems women refugees face? The group identified the following difficulties as central to what they, as refugee women face and undergo on a daily basis:
As well as gaining these insights into the daily struggles that are causes of conflict within the refugee communities that the women want to raise awareness about, the workshop also examined understandings of peace. It is important we recognize the importance of the DEPA ethos, that there are knowledges and values deeply embedded in these communities that can, and already are, addressing these societal ills.
‘… Belonging it's when you are accepted by the community and you feel it, whereas home it's a place where you live and you feel comfortable” Congolese refugee.”
This participant visually represented her sentiment of ‘belonging’ through this image of a cloth that has a location in Uganda special to her.
Towards the end of the training, participants wanted to use the skills they’d learnt to share ideas of other pressing issues they felt women refugees faced. In particular, they wanted to highlight aspects of economic empowerment they felt could improve refugee women’s lives. Like, for example, establishing small economic activities, such as brick laying as a way of getting out of poverty and generating income at household level.
SOS also stated that due to the increased cases of domestic violence recorded in the urban settlements where they operate there is a need to boost the legal response of the organisation to provide ample and timely responses in the form of a permanent legal representative to enable refugee women and children attain justice.
Through these discussions, participants highlighted that what they are fundamentally talking about and seeking is the transformation of their social welfare status. A desire for a more equitable and people centered approach to the development of their communities and the wider hosting communities in which they live.
The pilot, and wider PhotoVoice project, was warmly welcomed by participants. In the ethos with which we started this piece, of needing to decolonize research through more participatory inclusion of the needs of those being researched, the participants identified as a priority, their wish for the project to connect with and educate those (in NGOs and in local Government) with the power to help improve the lives of refugee women. As a result, the research team are currently in the process of setting up a stakeholder workshop to bring these types of organisations and individuals into conversation early with the project in the hope of trying to affect the change the participants envision.
The DEPA Uganda Team
Daphine Atuhaire, Tominke Olaniyan, Craig Walker