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Women in Policy Making: Shaden Khallaf

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Women in Policy Making: Shaden Khallaf

Nadeen Shaker

20 Sep 2019

8min min read
  • Women's rights

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals as well as the African Union (AU)’s Vision 2063 both call for gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Such equality is not just a basic human right but, given its multiplier effect, is necessary for a “peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world”. 

As part of its ongoing thematic focus on ‘Women, Power and Policy Making’ (see our policy briefs competition), the Africa Portal has reached out to leading women from around the continent to learn about their policy fields and hear their thoughts on gender equality, progress with regard to the UN and AU’s vision, and their advice to young women. Over the next few weeks, we will be releasing these exclusive interviews and essays. 

In our first interview, Nadeen Shaker, the Associate Editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, sat down with Shaden Khallaf, Senior Policy Advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the Middle East and North Africa. 



NS: What are you working on now? What policy initiatives are you involved with?

SK: We have been thinking about our long-term vision as an organisation in terms of refugee protection, and how can we, while we’re addressing the immediate life-saving and protection [needs] of people who are fleeing conflict and other major crises, think ahead to what kind of framework should exist... [We have] a proneness to conflict in the region. Given that we know this, we are looking at what kind of policy frameworks will be conducive to dealing with these continuous waves of displacement and refugee movements, which we know have happened across history in the region and, unfortunately, may continue to happen.

NS: Are there specific initiatives or mechanisms that you are developing right now?

SK: We work closely with government partners but [we are] also… expanding the base of support for refugees and for UNHCR through stronger analysis and understanding of the humanitarian landscape. We are working…on outreach to make sure that civil society’s role in addressing displacement is properly captured (a) because they are doing a huge amount that isn’t always necessarily reflected, and (b) [because] they [need] a say not just in implementing policies but also in the design of policies… in many instances [these] small, local organisations are doing very important work, but they are not part of the discussion. They are not sitting at the table when the policies are designed.

NS: Why isn’t that the case?

SK: [T]raditionally, big crises are dealt with by big actors… governments, large UN agencies, [and] the well-known international NGOs... in many instances, national civil society organisations don’t have the exposure… to the policy making circles… [W]hat we are really trying to do is localise the response a lot more… It is a very interesting process and one that is sometimes met with some resistance because when you’ve been doing something for a long time… there are stakes involved and it is difficult to let go… The system was built around a certain model, around a certain type of crisis. But now crises are different; conflicts have changed and they are much more (a) interrelated, [and] (b) unfortunately, occurring much more in civilian spaces… As a result, the response also has to be different. So, the model of a large movement of people who are settled in a camp … relying on UN aid, it still exists in many parts of the world, but it is changing very dramatically. People are much more mobile than they ever have been. Crises are much more interrelated than they have ever been. People are much more aware… because everything is digital, people are often aware at the same time if not before humanitarian actors of what is happening: where they should go to get better services... So, it is pushing the system to change and to improve and to be more responsive, more predictable, and more sustainable at the same time. This is also what the Global Compact on Refugees is trying to achieve.

NS: You talked about civil society and I know that you pioneered the MENA Civil Society Displacement Network. Can you talk about that and what you are trying to achieve?

SK: What we [have seen] is that the scope and scale of displacement in the region is beyond what any one agency or one entity can deal with, so it really has to be a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach... And what we [have seen] is that in the region… there was limited opportunity for the different stakeholders to come together: the small NGOs, the faith-based actors, the private sector, the academics, the governments, and the UN agencies. There was the UN and government discussion, the UN and the NGO discussion. And then you had academia separately, and civil society kind of dispersed. There were cultural actors and influencers doing their own thing without having it really being part of an overall response.

While there is merit to that, there is a lot value in having a coordinated approach and a platform in which people and actors can build on what others are doing because [the] needs are so widespread. We cannot afford to have duplication or to have gaps because people are in need and the needs are exacerbating and the resources are dwindling with time. We would like to capitalise on the strengths that each of these actors bring to the table and have a stronger partnership.

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NS: I’d like to move on to gender mainstreaming and equality, especially in the field of policy making. We know it is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and it’s on the agenda for the AU’s vision. So is it something that is realistic? Is it happening? 

SK: It has to happen. There is no way around it. I think the large majority of people, colleagues, stakeholders, and partners would agree that this is the way forward. That really without having fairness and gender equality as the core, we are held back collectively as an international community, as humanitarians, as development actors. And what I look to with hope is the change coming from the top in the UN system, with senior management now meeting gender parity for the first time. But gender parity in terms of numbers is one step, which needs to be combined with the space to make meaningful contributions.

NS: I’d like to talk about you personally in your job. Do you face any challenges as a woman working in the field? How has it been for you?

SK: Working in the humanitarian field, we are exposed to so much human suffering. We see rape,  torture, abuse, and exploitation. We see war, greed, and destruction. And while I was always moved by the tragedies displaced people experience, becoming a mother amplified the human connection so much more, and I see these things from a different perspective. 

Some of the challenges are also related to the actors we deal with, including religious authorities, police officers, or military personnel, who are not always used to working with women in senior positions. There is sometimes hesitation to deal with women who are representing organisations or are there to negotiate... Many of us have had experiences where we either felt unwelcome or we felt challenged, or were dismissed because of our gender.

NS: How do you do that? For instance, especially in an official capacity, you have to deal with military men or something, and they are resistant to you. What would you do then?

SK: [F]irst of all, you always have to maintain your own personal integrity and dignity regardless of whatever is coming your way. Secondly, you have to maintain a clear, respectful, and professional approach and tone - not let it get to you, not let it affect you in any way emotionally or personally. 

NS: That’s difficult. 

SK: It is incredibly difficult! When we were on the first UN mission to Iraq after the war in 2003, we were taking a military plane from Baghdad to the North. We weren’t supposed to move around in the plane and I just happen[ed] to stand up, and the military officer on the plane took serious issue with me for having done that. I think, a large part of it was, “What are you doing on this plane? This is not your place. You don’t know the rules. You don’t know how this is supposed to be done.” At another point, I had to manage protection for refugees who had been detained, and to negotiate with prison officials. We carried out countless prison visits, to assess conditions, to counsel the refugees, to negotiate their release in highly difficult conditions. As a young woman walking in, asking questions, it was not always well-received, especially when a riot started in the men’s prisons while we were there. We needed to stay calm, and to be professional. There are many other instances or experiences that most women in the humanitarian field would have experienced over their careers. 

"Always know your purpose. Be clear on why you are doing what you do because this will keep you grounded and motivated."

NS: If you want to give advice to young women entering the policy field, what would that be?

SK: I think (a) always know your purpose. Be clear on why you are doing what you do because this will keep you grounded and motivated… We can sometimes lose track of why we are here... we are really there for the humanitarian purpose of alleviating the suffering of so many millions of people - women, children, and men, the elderly and disabled... (b) always know what your strengths and weaknesses are because they will be tested. You will be in situations where you will wonder, “Why am I here? What got me into this? recalling what is driving you, what is motivating you, is important. And (c) I would say, find a network of peers that can be supportive of you [and] that you can be supportive of because it is an incredibly important base to have. It is something you can always fall back on. I’ve been lucky to have colleagues who are dedicated, professional, and we have each other to sound ideas off of, to share stories and advice, and I think a network of like-minded female peers is a wonderful resource to have.

NS: Can you give examples of certain African countries or humanitarian sectors who have adopted the gender lens in policy?

SK: In Tunisia… there have been strides made in terms of gender equality at the legal level over the past few years, which is very heartening to see. There is now also a draft asylum law in the works, which would be a big development in the region, given that many countries do not have legislation that governs how asylum, refugee movements and displacement should be managed... So the fact that Tunisia is moving ahead with this [with] a clear refugee protection angle, but also a gender angle, is positive. 

NS: What are the main challenges facing women refugees and migrants now?

SK: They are many unfortunately… it is the double burden of facing the discrimination that any woman faces plus facing the enormity of the challenges of being displaced. So, in many instances, women who are on the move without a male family member or other supporter are exposed to additional abuse, harassment, exclusion, and discrimination... [There are] women who experienced rape as a tool of war; who have had to leave their children behind or be separated from their families; who have carried the responsibilities of their families on their shoulders between one day and the next, and headed households in sometimes hostile contexts, with no legal, social, or material support, and often no documentation. We see child marriages, girls dropping out of school, smuggling and human trafficking.

But we also see remarkable resilience, strength and a capacity to keep going which is awe-inspiring. Refugee and displaced women can also be the primary catalyst for peace-building and strengthened social cohesion. We owe it to them to collectively and continuously advocate for their rights to live in dignity and to reach their full potential. I am always proud to contribute to this objective, and the journey continues. 

(Images: Shaden Khallaf - Cairo, Egypt - Mohamed Elraai, Africa Portal)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.