Refugee women join other women to raise their voices on International Women’s Day

For Kalsoom, a refugee from Pakistan who has been in Indonesia for five years, 14 March 2018 was a special day. She was one of five speakers at a talk show titled “Get Involved and Stay Engaged: Urban Activism and More Opportunities for Women’s Empowerment.”

Kalsoom (kiri) berbicara di depan audiensi selama acara bincang-bincang dalam rangka memperingati Hari Perempuan Sedunia 2018. @UNHCR/T. Kurniasari

The talk show, which was organized by UN Women and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ – German Corporation for International Cooperation) to mark International Women’s Day 2018, called on people to work together and take a more active role to ensure greater empowerment of all women.

Other speakers included Senior Vice President of hailing app GO-JEK, Dayu Dara Permata, author of the novels Sophismata and Beats Apart, Alanda Kariza, Programme Specialist at UN Women in Indonesia, Lily Puspasari, and Program Director of Social Protection Programme at GIZ, Cut Sri Rozanna. During the talk show, speakers shared their stories and encouraged women to get educated, be more independent, and take action to improve their lives.

Kalsoom spoke about herself and shared the plight of other refugee women who have faced hardship because they were forced to flee their countries, leaving behind their families, their friends, and their homes. Depending on where they are from, refugee women could often be deprived of an education and other rights many of us take for granted. Many also face domestic violence and social stigma. “In many countries where refugee women are from they are discriminated against and have limited rights to expresses their views and are confined to the domestic arena,” said the refugee who is now hosted generously by the local community in Bogor, West Java.

Even when Kalsoom is far away from her home, initially she faced difficulties from her refugee community in Indonesia. She said, for instance, when she used to get home late after volunteering as an interpreter for fellow refugees, other refugees thought she was not doing the right thing. “It took me five years to prove what I was doing, that I’m supporting refugees in our community,” Kalsoom went on.

Against these odds and with her determination to help improve the lives of refugee women, Kalsoom initiated the Refugee Women’s Support Group Indonesia, which holds art and handicraft workshops, English lessons and sewing classes for refugee women in Bogor as an outlet to channel their creativity. “Being a refugee it is hard to survive. And my community needs help,” said Kalsoom. “They [the women] need education and skills training. When they get educated, they will be empowered, become confident and positively contribute to the community,” Kalsoom said.

Once an aid worker in her home country who ended up as a refugee herself, she established the label “Beyond the Fabric” for her textile products. Kalsoom’s dedication and perseverance has borne fruit. Thanks to her work, more and more refugee women are gaining skills and accessing education. Kalsoom also mentioned that there is a need to increase awareness about refugees.  “We need to tell people that there are refugees here in Indonesia,” and she urged for more support from Indonesia for the refugee community.

The stories of the other speakers at the talk show also inspired refugees, who were invited to the event. “I learned that age doesn’t matter. You can reach your dreams and do something at any age,” said Nina (not her real name), an Ethiopian refugee.

Zulfa, a Somali refugee, also shared similar thoughts. During the event, Zulfa jotted down notes of the discussion on her cellphone. “It’s important to change our mind-set and to understand that we, as women, have equal rights and can acquire the same qualifications as men,” she said.

Meanwhile, UN Women Representative in Indonesia, Sabine Machi, called on all of us to take action and work together to create a positive change for women and girls. “Women and girls still face barriers that prevent them from achieving their full potential. We need to ensure equal choices and opportunities for them,” Sabine said.