Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has taken on a critical health function. Holly Ritchie here discusses how Somali women refugees are using this platform particularly in this challenging time and discusses the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance.

Somali women Nairobi
Somali refugee women in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Holly Ritchie.

ICTs as fundamental ‘frugal’ innovations, and growing use during the pandemic

Information Communication Technology (ICTs), for example mobile devices and applications, are arguably the dominant technology of our time. From a consumer perspective, ICTs may be considered a form of ‘frugal’ innovation, as they present innovative, low-cost solutions to everyday problems that are flexible and accessible for users with limited resources. If used effectively, ICTs have been cited to be a major ‘game changer’ in human development, driving progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fostering potential gender equality and empowerment.

Beyond basic connectivity, there is increasing use of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance, for example enabling cash transfers through mobile money, and facilitating access to basic utilities including energy, water and sanitation. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, governments and agencies in Africa have started to draw on mobile phone apps for public information and support, for example the establishment of WhatsApp chatbot servicesYet there has been little discussion on the use of such technologies by vulnerable groups themselves that may present both simple and socially embedded frugal solutions which can be employed during the health crisis and beyond.

Insights into Somali women refugees and ICTs in Kenya

My research with Somali refugees (in Kenya) and Syrian women refugees (in Jordan) has explored gender and the influence of social norms in refugee livelihoods.1 More recently, I have looked at the grassroots use of ICTs by refugees, and links to cultural dynamics in refugee inclusion and integration. On the back of these studies, in 2018, I started a small self-funded project to promote the well-being and leadership skills of a group of 25 Somali refugee women2 in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya.3 As a trial in digital communication, in the early stages of the project I set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate coordination, despite limited smartphone ownership amongst the refugee women.4 It emerged that it was eventually possible to reach all of the women in the group however through either children’s or neighbours’ devices. And whilst the women were largely illiterate, women used voice messages and pictures to communicate on the platform.

Initially conceived as a means of simple coordination, the WhatsApp group soon took on a new social dimension with some women sharing inspirational Islamic messages during special days. Later as the women began a small tie-dye business, progress and designs started to be shared on the platform. The experience of the online group has permitted both a renewed sense of personal confidence and connection in a hostile setting, and the development of new collective agency and economic coordination. At a deeper level, for women that have direct access to smart phones, the technology enables new forms of cultural solidarity between the women, reinforcing identities through sharing of religious messages.

Refugee ICT experience during the pandemic – from health to livelihoods

This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform has taken on a critical health function, as vital health information, advice, and government directives are shared with the refugee group in English and Somali.5 This is further shared by the refugee women themselves with close family and friends, indicating the importance of refugee-own networks during a crisis. 
Beyond health information, the group has also provided a forum for situational updates and social support, as Eastleigh has faced rising levels of Covid-19 cases, and there have been increasing reports of police violence as malls have been forcibly closed and street trading prohibited. Working primarily as petty traders, the lockdown in Eastleigh has had a significant impact on the refugee women’s (safe) daily work and wages, and households are struggling to make ends meet. Whilst this remains an extraordinarily difficult time, the combined experience of digital communication and physical restrictions has accelerated refugee women’s interest in online business and marketing of their new textile products, particularly by younger group members.

Emerging lessons learnt – the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance

The refugee WhatsApp group has illuminated various ways that ICTs can boost refugee women’s self-reliance and resilience:

  • Simple ICT tools can be useful in local digital communication, including reaching poor and illiterate refugee groups (through voice messages/pictures)
  • ICT tools can permit vital social solidarity and economic coordination and online marketing
  • ICT tools can also facilitate the sharing of public health and security information, and the countering of fake/false news that is often distributed via social media or ‘on the streets’

In this fast-moving digital world, it is clear that ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in refugee socio-economic lives, although actual usage and adoption may vary at a local level, with differing levels of connectivity, support and access.6 Notably, ICTs can also be misused at a local level, with apps being employed to instigate unrest or violence. Further, there may be additional access barriers in refugee settings with clampdowns on connectivity imposed by local authorities.

Despite such challenges, in times of crisis, it is crucial for policy makers and aid agencies to recognize and draw on locally established ICT platforms and community groups to facilitate critical information dissemination, and local exchange and support. Over time, to better appreciate ICTs and gender in fragile contexts, aid groups should consider both physical access to mobile devices, but also links to social norms, cultural ideas (and ideology) and the role of local actors. This will permit a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of ICTs in refugee women’s empowerment, social protection, and broader integration.

1. Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.
2. With outreach of up to 100 refugee women.
3. Due to its high presence of Somali traders and concentration of Somali refugees, the district is also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’.
4. An estimated 40 percent of the refugee women had smartphones.
5. For example, health advice from the Ministry of Health in Somalia.
6. Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.

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