Empowering female refugees with technology

A tale of failed diplomacy and the power of tech


By Ophelia Wach

Despite international agreements and diplomacy in place to protect refugees, a big proportion of displaced persons – especially women – are left behind. This is where tech companies and civil society are stepping in and provide urgently needed solutions for the empowerment and inclusion of female refugees. Read why it matters, which applications have been developed to help displaced women worldwide and how you can contribute.

(Note: In the following I will be using the terms “women” or “female”. These are including all individuals identifying as women, transgender identities, as well as non-binary persons, which are similarly or stronger affected by the events described.)

Around the world, people are spending hours on end developing new technologies. A fierce global competition is underway between economies to set new standards for technological development. As a result, we live in an age of technological advancement that is unprecedented in its speed and transformative character.




But we also live in a time where more individuals are displaced than ever before in history, even more than during World War II. Conflict and political instability has forced one percent of the world’s population (80 Million people) to leave their homes and seek refuge, both within (“internally displaced persons”) and outside the borders of their home countries (“refugees”). Half of the world’s displaced individuals are women, who are particularly vulnerable. According to UN Women, female refugees and displaced persons are at high risk of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, health complications (especially during pregnancy) and human trafficking. It is estimated that at least one in five women in displacement has experienced sexual violence or assault.



A legal framework with blind spots

In addition to these risks of transit, international agreements meant to address refugees leave a blatant gap. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

This definition leaves out those who flee sexual abuse and exploitation – many of whom are women. Survivors of sexual violence are simply not considered refugees under international law, denying them a right to asylum. Some countries, nevertheless, recognize the need to protect these individuals in line with human rights obligations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



Empowering displaced women with tech solutions

Whilst international agreements fail to address and protect some of the most vulnerable, civil society and entrepreneurs step in. They form groups and communities aiming to provide immediate solutions to ameliorate the vulnerable situation of female refugees and displaced persons. Technology is not the silver bullet to solve all problems, however, if you are looking for a challenge to solve, think of what impact your tech expertise can have. Following are some of the pioneering examples that can aid the inclusion of these particularly vulnerable groups.



In Rwanda, the platform “MY MONEY” by Techsolver enables female refugees to share business plans with financial providers. The goal is to connect female refugees who are currently excluded from productive opportunities with financial services. Thanks to the app, women gain access to market information, which enables them to improve their financial literacy. The solution had been developed as a response to the “innovate for women challenge” by the Digital Transformation Center Kigali, in cooperation with UNWomen, UNCHR and the Rwandan government.

Another example is the app “Refaid” by the company trellyz. The application displays support and services for refugees at their current location. This includes services specifically targeted at women, such as female art groups, community workshops and individual consultations on pre- and postnatal health care or support for job search. (See picture.)

In similar lines, the “TF4Women Fellowship Programme” strengthens the professional inclusion of women, specifically in the technology industry. The six-month programme is free of charge for refugee women. Created by the global tech community “Techfugees”, it provides practical knowledge on new technologies, as well as one-on-one mentoring for women. Over the past three years, the fellowship has accelerated the professional inclusion in tech jobs for more than 80% of its participants.



Why it matters

There are many more examples of proactive tech entrepreneurs and civil society groups that create solutions for female refugees and displaced women. Still, many problems remain to be addressed. Let’s rise to the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8th and discover ways in which we can contribute.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve have already taken the first step: to inform yourself about the struggles of female refugees and displaced women. But what challenges do women refugees face in your community right now, today? Who is supporting them? Is there a way you can join the effort with your time, skills or knowledge?

Please share what you find out – with me, with your friends, with your fellow colleagues and raise awareness. Become aware of the change you can make. Inspire others. And then, it’s time to get to work!




About the Author

Ophelia Wach is a MUNAM Alumni of 2016/17 and former faculty advisor and board member of MUNAM (2018-20). She holds a degree in political science and law at LMU Munich and is student of “Politics & Technology” (MSc.) at TU Munich. Next to her studies, Ophelia works as consultant for the German agency for development cooperation GIZ (Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit) and is co-founder and project manager of the intercultural climate project “100 Voices – One Planet”.