Finding Sanctuary: Safe Spaces Empower Refugee Women to Heal and Thrive


Some of the members of New Hope VSLA displaying baskets they make as a group to earn income. The group meets at the safe space constructed in their community by UN Women with funding from the UN CERF. Photo credit: UN Women / James Ochweri
Some of the members of New Hope VSLA displaying baskets they make as a group to earn income. The group meets at the safe space constructed in their community by UN Women with funding from the UN CERF. Photo credit: UN Women / James Ochweri

In the midst of displacement, trauma can linger like a shadow. For many refugees, especially women and girls, the journey to safety is marred by unimaginable hardships. Fleeing conflict and persecution, they are often confronted with the harrowing reality of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) both within their communities and during their perilous journeys. Safe spaces, however, are offering a beacon of hope, providing crucial support and fostering a path towards healing and empowerment.

In Isingiro district, which hosts two refugee settlements of Nakivale and Oruchinga, lies a sanctuary of hope and healing: two safe spaces established by Coalition for Action on 1325 (COACT) in collaboration with UN Women under the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Since their inception in 2023, the safe spaces have served as more than just physical structures; they are symbols of resilience and solidarity. Offering a myriad of services from psychosocial support to economic empowerment programs, these spaces have become lifelines for those in need.

At the heart of the safe spaces are individuals like Mbabazi Charity, a counsellor at the Oruchinga safe space, whose unwavering dedication has transformed lives. "When we started operations, the number of GBV cases was alarmingly high," she recalls. "But through counselling and community awareness, we've witnessed a remarkable shift. Women and girls are finding their voices, reclaiming their agency, and paving the way for change."

Among those who have found refuge within these walls is Asha Uwimana (not real name), a survivor of the Rwanda genocide whose journey to healing has been grueling. "The trauma of losing my family still haunts me," she shares, her voice quivering with emotion. "But through the support and counselling I've received at the safe space; I've begun to rebuild my life."

For Asha, like many others, the safe space is more than just a place of healing; it's a launchpad for a brighter future and offered more than just therapy. A multipurpose cash transfer of USD 20 from the project allowed her to invest in a skill she learned from her father – handicraft making. With training in financial literacy and business planning offered by the UN Women supported project, Asha transformed her talent into a thriving bag-making business and is now saving USD 8 per week with her village savings and loans group.

"With each bag I make, I reclaim a piece of myself," she says, her eyes gleaming with determination. "And with each sale, I inch closer to a future of stability and security for my family."

Asha' story is not unique. Januaria, another program beneficiary, battled not only the trauma of displacement but also health issues. The safe space provided not just a listening ear, but also the resources to address her needs. A cash grant coupled with guidance on business management empowered her to launch a knitting business. Now Januaria not only supports her family but also uses her skills to empower others, teaching knitting to child mothers and school dropouts. In 2023 Januaria equipped 36 teenage mothers and school dropouts in her community with knitting and handcraft making skills, enabling them to look beyond their challenges and engage into productive lives.

But perhaps the most profound impact of the safe spaces lies in the ripple effect it has on communities. Through community awareness sessions and economic empowerment initiatives, the safe spaces are not only breaking the cycle of violence but also fostering a culture of resilience and solidarity. In Juru Subbase camp in Nakivale Settlement, New Hope Village Savings and Loan Association has emerged as a lifeline for its members, offering not only financial stability but also a pathway to brighter futures.

"When we first came together as a group, we lacked the financial literacy and management skills needed to navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship," recalls Francoise, a proud member of the association. "But through the support and guidance offered at the Juru safe space, we began to chart a new course—a course filled with promise and opportunity."

In 2023, the group received a much-needed cash grant of USD 54, a lifeline that would propel them towards newfound prosperity. With the financial literacy and management skills they had gained from the program, they purchased raw materials for making baskets—a venture that would soon yield remarkable dividends. With earnings totaling USD 802, the association members found themselves not only financially secure but also poised for a brighter future. Each member received a share of the profits, USD 32, a windfall that would change their lives in profound ways.

For Francoise, the impact of this windfall was immediate and profound. "I used the money to purchase solar lighting equipment," she shares, her voice brimming with excitement. "Now, my children can study at night, uninterrupted by the darkness that once enveloped our home. This, I believe, will boost their academic performance and pave the way for a brighter future."

Safe spaces are not merely physical structures; they are cornerstones of hope. By providing a safe haven for healing, fostering economic empowerment, and promoting a culture of respect for women's rights, these spaces are empowering refugee women to not just survive, but to thrive. Their stories are a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative potential of investing in the well-being of women and girls.