Support Women Grassroots Leaders

Support Women Survivor Leaders

Supporting Women Survivor Leaders of Grassroots Organisations

by Lorraine Smith-van Lin

Founder and Executive Director of Tallawah Justice for Women e.v.


When Jacinda Ardern stepped down from her position as the Prime Minister of New Zealand in January 2022, her words were reported by major news outlets around the world. She said:

I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not,’ she said. ‘I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple. I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.’

Although Ardern was a powerful, world-renowned leader in the highest position in her country, the weight of leadership was heavy and it took a toll. Like many women leaders, Ardern had faced  numerous challenges during her tenure in office included those related to COVID-19, and she stepped down after deciding that she no longer had enough capacity to lead effectively. Yet for many, Ardern’s leadership will be remembered as one characterized by empathy and compassion.

For many women in leadership, the weight of their positions can take a toll emotionally, physically and on their families. Whether one is the Prime Minister of a country or the leader of a survivor and community-based organisation in Northern Uganda, leadership challenges faced by women are real. Admittedly, a comparison between a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and a woman leader in conflict-impacted Northern Uganda, many of whom are themselves survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) with very limited resources and influence, seems inapposite. The latter could be perceived as sitting at the lowest rung of the social and political ladder.

However, in the fight against sexual violence against women and girls, particularly in post-conflict contexts, women survivor leaders sit at the top of the totem pole. Their vital role in conflict prevention, mitigation, and response efforts, supporting survivors and building systems that address and combat violence is crucial. Through their leadership, they empower women survivors to engage in economic activities, help to provide access to medical and psychosocial support, and tirelessly advocate for systemic changes to laws and policies on SGBV. Without women leaders of grassroots organisations, efforts to tackle the scourge of sexual violence and respond to victims of these atrocities would suffer a serious setback.

The Challenges of Grassroots Leadership

Yet, these women leaders often face multiple challenges on their leadership journey which drain their proverbial tank and hinder their ability to effectively fight for and advance the needs and rights of survivors. A survey of 100 women leaders of survivor and grassroots organisations in conflict-affected communities in Northern Uganda carried out by Tallawah Justice for Women, Gulu Women Economic Development and Globalisation (GWED-G) and the University of Nottingham, highlighted three of the major challenges which they experience.

The first is invisibility. Despite their tireless and dedicated work to support fellow SGBV survivors, other victims and persons with intersecting vulnerabilities, the work of women leaders is often not known or acknowledged. They have very little space and opportunity to actively participate in and influence decision-making processes, and limited access to platforms and processes where policies and laws that will impact the lives of women are being shaped.

Second, women-lead organisations are gravely under-resourced. The women leaders surveyed highlighted that they are often ineligible for large grants and thus are vulnerable to larger, more established non-profit organisations as sub-grantees. Furthermore, most available funding is directed towards short-term projects, with no resources available to finance administrative and operational costs. This poses a significant challenge for these organizations as they struggle to maintain their viability and sustain crucial initiatives beyond the life of the project. Relying heavily on very limited human resources and volunteers, these organizations face limitations in scaling up their efforts and reaching a larger number of survivors. Additionally, the lack of funding limits the ability of grassroots women’s organizations to invest in essential “indirect” expenses, or to implement critical movement-building activities, such as hosting meetings and negotiations with other partners. The funding situation worsened during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, with the majority of those surveyed indicating that they had fewer resources than before the pandemic.

Third, women leaders have limited access to technological resources and training on how to effectively utilize technology. In today’s digital age, access to technology is crucial for organizations to enhance their advocacy efforts, communication strategies, and outreach. Providing resources and training in this area equips grassroots women’s organizations with the necessary tools to expand their reach, engage with wider audiences, and amplify their impact.

Invest in Women Grassroots Leaders

It makes sense to invest in women leaders of grassroots organisations. At the end of the day, New Zealand kept running after Ardern stepped down, but in many communities, if women grassroots and survivor leaders walk away, the situation will be dire for survivors of sexual violence. These women leaders act as crucial bridges for SGBV survivors in their quest to access justice, medical and psycho-social support. Women leaders like Sylvia Acan, a war survivor and founder of Golden Women Vision in Gulu Uganda, was the first person called by a victim of domestic violence whose husband had poured hot water on her. Sylvia mobilized her own limited resources to get the victim to the hospital, reached out to local and international partners including Tallawah, to get help for this victim. Without her intervention, there is no doubt that the victim would not have survived. Pamela Angwech of GWED-G, is seen as a mother to many in Northern Uganda. Her fight for justice and reparations for women survivors of war in the region has earned her many well-deserved national and international human rights awards.

Women grassroots and survivor leaders’ unique perspectives and lived experiences bring valuable insights and expertise to the table and help to shape policies and programmes which address power imbalances, social norms and mindsets which contribute to violence against women. Moreover, women survivor leaders serve as powerful role models for other survivors and women in general. Their resilience, courage, and determination to overcome adversity inspire others to seek help, break the silence, and assert their rights. Indeed Uganda’s National Action Plan III, a policy document designed by the Ministry of Gender to fulfil Uganda’s obligations concerning women, peace and security, acknowledges the critical role played by women leaders in peace and development processes. 

By supporting these leaders, government agencies and donors would create a ripple effect, empowering more women to step forward, become agents of change, and challenge the societal norms that perpetuate violence. By supporting them, we strengthen their movements, which are often at the forefront of driving change at the community level. By providing them with resources, opportunities, and platforms they can create systemic change and contribute to transformative change in institutions, systems, and cultures.

In the words of Jacinda Ardern:

‘You can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mother, or not…a crier, a hugger, you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here, you can lead, just like me.’

Women grassroots and survivor leaders may not be Prime Ministers of their countries but the positive impact of their leadership and influence on addressing the scourge of SGBV should be recognised, applauded and fully supported.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top