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Strengthening the Workforce to Deliver Psychosocial Support for Refugee Women and Girls: Lessons from Northern and West Nile in Uganda

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by Dinnah Nabwire and Joseph Zzimula, TPO Uganda

Social Worker Training in KiyandagoUganda is home to more than 1.5 million South Sudanese refugees, with the number growing at an average of 1000+ refugees crossing into the country daily. Of these refugees, 86% are women and children, the majority of whom share narrations of traumatizing experiences that include witnessing loss of family members, destruction of property and sexual violence. Responding to the needs of refugee women and girls requires a holistic approach that revolves around a strong social service workforce who fully understands the needs and dynamics of refugee women and children. In the face of growing humanitarian needs, equipped teams will continue to be needed to deliver a cross section of interventions toward comprehensively identifying, managing and/or refering for quality psychosocial, socioeconomic and development needs of refugees.

Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO Uganda) as an implementing partner within the humanitarian response framework in Uganda has undertaken several steps towards strengthening its workforce to adequately respond to the needs of refugee women and girls in the districts of Kiryandongo, Adjumani and Yumbe districts in Northern and West Nile regions of Uganda. Through continuous trainings and reflective activities, TPO Uganda has registered critical lessons including growing impact and quality of services for refugees. Lessons learned through this project show the critical importance of investing in a strong social service workforce to deliver psychosocial support targeting women and girl surviviors of sexual and gender based violence among South Sudanese refugees. At the start of the project in 2015, refresher psychosocial support trainings were conducted for social workers with an integration of sexual and gender-based violence for them to understand the unique needs of refugee survivors.

Social workers then worked with trainers to adapt content from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings to meet the unique needs of women and girls. Some of the adpatations included group rather than individualized sessions for screened beneficiaries, which allowed social workers to ably support peaceful coexistence of traditionally conflicting groups of women from Nuer and Dinka tribes. The groups also received sessions on peer conseling and cohesion building among the survivors.

At the initial stages of mobilizing women and girls to participate in project activities, the social workers had observed resistance from the majority of the men in permitting their wives and partners to move out of their domestic spaces and participate in group activities. They addressed this through deliberate efforts to reach men with information on sexual and gender based violence and the critical need for psychosocial support to those affected. By addressing these social and cultural beliefs, the workers were able to generate more support from men and boys and alleviate the risk of women and girls falling out of active participation.

Additional adjustments that included embedding local songs and other creative activities was undertaken by social workers to ensure women and girls who weren’t able to read or write could easily understand and connect with the sessions. Through these critical investments, TPO Uganda has currently reached over 25,000 individuals with psychosocial support and mental health responses within the three refugee communities in 2016/17, with over half of the beneficiaries being women and girls. In Yumbe and Adjumani districts, close to 3,000 women and teenage girls have been screened for mental health disorders and psychosocial support alongside over 5,000 community members sensitized on gender based violence and mental health between March and June 2017. This impact however is anchored on the dynamic teams of social workers and clinical psychologists that the organization is continuously strengthening to deliver protection, treatment services and resilience outcomes for migrants. A strong social service workforce is therefore a critical component in attaining progress on Sustainable Development Goals 8, 16, 17 and above all Target 10.7 if we are to have peaceful societies with well managed migration policies.