Developed by Dr Linda Bartolomei and Associate Professor Eileen Pittaway, this collaborative action research project is supporting the implementation and monitoring of commitments to refugee women and girls in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in the Asia region, 2018 - 2021. The project is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Working in partnerships to improve the lives of refugee women and girls

The project supports commitments to women and girls set out in the Global Compact on Refugees, which seek to improve international protection for refugee women and girls, support gender equality and refugee women’s leadership, and end sexual and gender-based violence in refugee settings. The project is working in close partnership with refugee women, academics, service providers and UNHCR in Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is approved by the UNSW Human Research Ethics Committee and by our partner academic institutions, and follows a strict process to ensure participants’ confidentiality and informed consent. See project brochure [GD1] for details

The GCR is an international policy, formally adopted at the UN in December 2018, that aims to strengthen cooperation and solidarity with refugees and countries hosting refugees. It provides a framework for fairer and more predictable responsibility-sharing between nations, recognising that international cooperation is needed for sustainable solutions to refugee displacement. It's based on a multi-stakeholder approach, to broaden the base of actors who share the responsibility for refugee protection.

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The GCR is one of the strongest policies on the protection of refugee women and girls ever adopted by UN member States. Commitments include addressing gender inequality, the meaningful inclusion of women and girls in decision making and leadership and preventing and better responding to sexual and gender-based violence (SBGV). This project was developed to ensure these strong commitments are achieved. 

Photo: Linda Bartolomei

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Despite the best intentions of policy makers and services, evidence shows that refugee women still suffer endemic rape and sexual abuse; their voices are often silenced, and their capacity ignored; and they are commonly labelled as a minority and vulnerable group.  

The GCR provides a strong new opportunity for refugee women, but unless its gender commitments are realised, they will continue to suffer disproportionate violations of their rights. 

This project supports implementation of the GCR gender promises in the 5 project countries, working in close partnership with refugee women and other local stakeholders for sustainable outcomes. 

Photo: Eileen Pittaway 

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The project aims to improve international protection for refugee women and girls by increasing the capacity of services to work more effectively with them, including through the application of an age, gender and diversity approach to promote gender equality and support efforts to end sexual and gender-based violence. It will strengthen the ability of women’s civil society organisations and other stakeholders to include and empower refugee women to be actively involved in program design, implementation, management and monitoring. 

Specific aims and outcomes are set out in the project brochure. 

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The project uses a collaborative action research approach to work in close partnership with refugee women, refugee organisations, service providers, UNHCR, local academic partners and other stakeholders. Working with these local partners, the research team undertakes consultations using their signature reciprocal research methodology to identify issues of concern to refugee women and girls, AND potential solutions. Hearing directly from refugee women about what they see as solutions and what are their priority issues to address, is a key focus and strength of the project. It enables local partners to work in partnership with refugee women and men to more effectively respond to identified issues. 

Photo: NGO partner, Bangladesh 

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One of the project’s core principles, based on decades of research and partnerships with refugee women, is that sexual and gender based violence(SGBV) is  THE biggest barrier to women achieving gender equality.

It is also the major cause of inequality. 

While response to SGBV are often ‘siloed’ in humanitarian responses past research and this project have strongly demonstrated that SGBV is a cross cutting issue with all other areas of refugee life. Prevention and response therefore requires an integrated, multi-pronged approach against SGBV across all sectors of refugee support. 

Photo: Eileen Pittaway

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The research team’s long history of working with refugee women, and insights from their gender audit of the GCR, shaped the project’s core principles: 1. SGBV is a cross cutting issue and major barrier to gender equality, 2. Gender equality is essential for the protection of refugee women and girls, 3. Women and girls are not inherently vulnerable, but face vulnerable situations and 4. Projects to improve women’s protection, equality and participation, cannot take a ‘one size fits all’ approach; they must  address context-specific individual and structural barriers to be “transformative, not palliative”.  

Photo: Eileen Pittaway


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Partnerships with local academics, local UN agencies, NGOs and refugee women’s organisations underpin the value, delivery and long-term impact of the project. 

The project builds on our history of working collaboratively with refugee women and on our established regional networks. Strong partnerships with Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), UNHCR and partner organisations in key countries across Asia provided the essential grassroots links which made the project possible. As part of the project development, we have expanded our links with academics working on refugee and gender issues, and with local and international NGOs providing support to refugees. This has helped to ensure that the research design is sensitive and appropriate to each country context and meets the needs of all stakeholders, particularly refugee women and girls. 

For a list of project partners, see here

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Reciprocal research methodology

The ‘Reciprocal Research’ methodology used in this project was developed by Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei over many decades of working with refugee women and girls in over 20 countries.

The reciprocal and human rights focus of the method transforms people from subjects of research to active participants. It includes training, as both a reciprocal benefit, and to set the framework for a series of research activities. A ‘Matrix activity’ provides an age, gender and diversity analysis of how different ages and groups of women or men experience issues differently. A ‘Storyboard activity’ then explores a particular problem in depth, including recommended actions and solutions.

This research data and analysis provides the evidence for strategic planning and concrete action, working with multiple stakeholders. In this way, the method is empowering and has the potential for bringing about social change.


Research consultations were held in Kuala Lumpur in August 2019, with 36 refugee women leaders from 12 countries, 5 refugee male leaders, and UNHCR and NGO representatives. The process was supported by APRRN, and local partners Dr Shanti Thambiah, Tenaganita, MSRI, Asylum Access Malaysia, and UNHCR. The outcomes, together with further training and roundtables with project partners and refugee women in February 2020, identified concrete local strategies, programs and planning to increase refugee women’s participation and to address sexual and gender-based violence. The local partners are working closely together and with UNHCR and refuge women leaders to implement these local actions, including actions to support refugee women during COVID restrictions.

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Consultations were held on the Thai/Myanmar border in August 2019, with 38 women leaders from the nine border camps, plus 2 male leaders, UNHCR and NGOs. The consultations were co-facilitated by local academic partners Sriprapha Petcharamesree and Ratawit Ouaprachanon, (Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University), and supported by Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), The Border Consortium (TBC) and APRRN. The Final Consultations report was produced in October 2019 and short film segments illustrating key findings and recommendations were shown at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December 2019. With the advent of COVID restrictions, the project has adapted to provide online training requested by the refugee women’s organisations, and to support four grassroots refugee women’s organisations to run COVID-support projects in the refugee camps.


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In each country, the project approach has been adapted to suit local needs and context. Given the huge population of refugees in Bangladesh, the research team proposed a multi-stage, multi-stakeholder approach to research consultations.  This involved training service providers (UN, INGOs NGOs CBOs) and refugee women and men leaders to conduct research consultations in multi-stakeholder teams. Altogether, 24 workshops and consultations were conducted between November 2019 and January 2020, involving 226 refugee women, 85 refugee men and 86 UN, INGO and NGO staff. Data analysis workshops in February 2020 with the research facilitators, synthesised and analysed the findings and proposed actions. A report launch and planning on next actions will take place in early 2021. 

Key Bangladesh partners include Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University (CPJ), APRRN, UNHCR, numerous local and international NGOs, and refugee women and men community leaders. 

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