Data Protection as a Tool for African Refugee Women Resilience

Data Protection as a Tool for African Refugee Women Resilience


Africa is home to a third of the global refugee population, which translates to 40.4 million people.1 The refugee crisis in Africa has been marked by significant challenges, with refugee women facing a unique set of vulnerabilities.2 These challenges are exacerbated by the delicate balance between security and privacy in data protection, as well as the difficulties in collecting personal data from refugees, including women and girls, who make up most of the refugee population in Africa.3 The need for informed consent, language barriers, power dynamics, concerns about data security and privacy, risks of data misuse, gender-specific vulnerabilities, inadequate legal frameworks, and limited access to information and rights awareness highlight the complexities refugee women face in Africa.

For instance, in Chad, despite existing data protection laws, the influx of predominantly female refugees from Sudan fleeing civil unrest presents significant concerns, as insufficient implementation of protective measures leaves them vulnerable to unauthorized data access or misuse.4 Similarly, in Cameroon, where a substantial refugee population, especially women and children, resides from neighbouring countries like the Central African Republic and Nigeria, accessing essential services such as healthcare poses privacy and security challenges. Limited recognition of UNHCR ID cards exacerbates vulnerabilities, hampering opportunities and heightening susceptibility to exploitation.5

The purpose of this article is therefore, to illustrate how data protection can serve as a tool for African refugee women’s resilience. By integrating market-led initiatives with a robust protection framework, it is possible to empower refugee women. This involves tailored digital literacy programs to teach foundational digital skills, informing women about data protection risks, and educating them on safe online practices. Additionally, prioritizing efforts to enhance access to safe and reliable technology, advocating for initiatives that offer affordable access to essential devices and reliable internet connectivity, and promoting the utilization of secure communication tools and platforms are crucial steps towards safeguarding the rights and dignity of refugee women in Africa.6

The Power of Data Protection in Empowering Refugee Women

Data serves as an important tool for refugee women in Africa as it enables them to access essential services such as healthcare, education, and employment opportunities; make informed decisions; and advocate for their rights.7 Registration of refugees involves their identification, data recording, documentation, and verification.8

Refugee data typically includes particulars such as name, address, family details, date and place of birth, sex, marital status, language spoken, level of education, occupational skills, ethnic origin, religion, date of arrival, medical or health status, and reasons for flight.9 For African refugee women, this personal data holds immense importance because they must grasp the potential risks linked to disclosing such information. This understanding is vital for safeguarding their privacy and security in challenging environments.10 For these women, comprehending the risks associated with sharing their personal data is paramount, particularly in light of the utilization of new technologies and the growing number of actors involved in the humanitarian sector. This awareness is essential for ensuring the protection of their privacy and security amidst evolving digital landscapes.11

In light of these challenges, prioritising data protection initiatives is crucial for empowering African refugee women. Laws and policies aimed at safeguarding the confidentiality of migration data and the privacy of refugee women are based on internationally recognized principles, standards, and regulations. This concerted effort ensures that their personal information remains secure and their rights are upheld in the face of evolving technological landscapes and humanitarian interventions.12Additionally, data protection is instrumental in preserving their privacy and autonomy, further reinforcing the importance of comprehensive measures in this regard.

Refugee women are often forced to disclose their personal information to access aid, shelter, and healthcare.13 This information is usually sensitive and susceptible to misuse, exploitation and discrimination.14 Ensuring robust data protection measures is crucial to safeguarding their privacy and dignity in these contexts.15 Therefore, to enable refugee women to maintain control over their information, there is a need to implement data protection mechanisms like privacy focused mobile apps that are designed to safeguard their personal data while facilitating access to essential resources such as healthcare and legal aid, digital literacy training and community-driven approaches to help them understand the importance of protecting their personal information and navigate digital spaces confidently.

Data protection is crucial for safeguarding the well-being and security of refugee women, especially in scenarios where for instance, they are escaping domestic violence or human trafficking.16 In these situations, maintaining confidentiality and anonymity is important for such survivors who are seeking help and safety. Hence, if organizations establish strong data security protocols, they can establish secure environments where refugee women can openly share their stories and receive necessary support without worrying about reprisal.17

Refugee women’s involvement in decisions that affect their lives is essential, and data protection plays a crucial role in facilitating their active participation.18 When refugee women feel confident in the security of their data, they are more inclined to engage with humanitarian organizations, sharing their experiences, needs, and preferences.19 This trust forms the basis of a collaborative relationship, enabling organizations to utilize data responsibly to tailor services to better address the specific needs of refugee women.20 By creating a safer and more inclusive environment, data protection empowers refugee women to participate actively in decisions affecting their lives. This empowerment extends to their ability to access accurate information about their rights, seek legal assistance for their claims, and participate in community projects within refugee camps.21

Putting the Data Protection Mechanisms in Practice

Introducing data protection mechanisms into practice is essential for ensuring the security and privacy of refugee women’s personal information. In this context, privacy-focused mobile apps, digital literacy initiatives, and community-driven approaches play pivotal roles in empowering refugee women to navigate digital spaces safely and confidently. These strategies not only safeguard their personal data but also promote greater awareness and participation in decision-making processes that impact their lives within refugee communities.

Digital literacy training

Humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), have emphasised that the digital inclusion of refugee women is a fundamental human right.22 Digital literacy training is therefore crucial for empowering refugee women to navigate digital spaces securely and with confidence. Addressing the digital literacy gap is essential, as it currently disadvantages refugee women, preventing them from accessing the positive benefits of the internet.23 By bridging this gap, digital literacy training facilitates digital inclusion, enabling refugee women to access vital digital resources and technologies.

Digital literacy training programs tailored for African refugee women can provide them with essential knowledge and skills necessary for making informed decisions. These programs typically cover topics such as data privacy, informed consent, and secure practices in using digital technologies.24 While specific programs may vary, some have been implemented in African countries and have shown positive impacts.25

For instance, the Solidarity Initiative for Refugees (SIR) in Kenya has successfully equipped over 2,000 young refugees with skills for job linkage by collaborating with organizations like the Xavier Project, Source Network, and Rebank.26 In Uganda, Access for All conducted digital literacy and security training for refugee rights defenders, revealing that three in four respondents had experienced cyber harassment, including abuse, stalking, unwarranted sexual advances, and social media account hacking.27 These statistics highlight the tangible impact of digital literacy initiatives in addressing the unique challenges faced by refugee communities worldwide.28

In February 2022, the UNHCR, Techfugees Kenya and Cohere (formerly the Xavier Project), held a two-day Digital Sprint event that was attended by refugees in Kenya.29 The Digital Sprint event brought together nearly 80 participants, along with 20 volunteers and members of the Kenyan tech and humanitarian communities. Additionally, representatives from four guest projects organizations were present, along with sponsor representatives from UNHCR Kenya, NRC Dadaab & Kakuma, and Samuel Hall.30 Throughout the event, participants engaged in digital literacy and skills development activities, with a focus on addressing challenges faced by refugee communities in Kenya, including those related to employment and digital inclusion.31 By providing training, mentorship, and opportunities for collaboration, the Digital Sprint aimed to empower participants to develop innovative solutions that promote refugee rights and well-being, including measures to enhance data protection for refugee women. Through initiatives like the Digital Sprint, efforts are made to strengthen digital literacy and skills among refugee populations, ultimately contributing to their empowerment and protection in an increasingly digital world.

Privacy-focused mobile apps

The development of privacy-focused mobile applications or web-based applications has been on the rise in the last few years. These applications are usually developed as non-profit open-source projects, by making their source code available freely.32 Popular ones include search engine DuckDuckGo, social app Signal and two-factor authenticator, Authy. These applications represent a critical tool in prioritizing user privacy and security, and they can be easily used as blueprints for development of tailor-made ones for refugee women.33 They are engineered with features like end-to-end encryption and secure data storage to shield their users’ personal information from data attacks, unauthorised access and exploitation.34 They can be leveraged to enable refugee women to engage with digital platforms and access online services without compromising their privacy and exposing themselves to risks of exploitation. This way, they can reclaim agency over their narratives and shine a light on injustices they face while pushing for systematic reforms to address the main cause of their marginalisation and vulnerability.35

An example of such apps is the Connecting Worlds Family App, crafted by 3-Sided Cube for UNHCR, which facilitates refugees and donors in setting up profiles, communicating securely, and fostering mutual understanding.36 Engineered with a focus on security, the app ensures the safety of both refugees and donors and has features like multi-language content, translation services, and human interventions to uphold community standards.37 The App has been embraced warmly by donors and refugees as it serves as a platform for meaningful interaction and support, enhancing the refugee experience and fostering a sense of community. The App is accessible in various African countries, including Kenya. This App, developed in 2022, has been around for over a year now, helping to bridge the digital divide and bring families close together.38

Such privacy-enhanced functions bring a sense of assurance, empowerment and resilience as refugee women can surf through digital spaces confidently and autonomously, contributing to their safety and well-being in their host countries.39 Encrypted communication channels and transparency reports can be used by refugee women to amplify their voices and hold perpetrators accountable.40 They should be leveraged to enable refugee women to engage with digital platforms and access online services without compromising their privacy and exposing themselves to risks of exploitation. Such empowerment and resilience contribute to broader efforts towards human rights advancement for refugee women.

Community-driven approaches

Refugee women should also be engaged in collaborative development of data protection solutions to ensure cultural relevance and that the strategies are tailor-made to address their unique needs.41 Such an involvement brings along a sense of ownership and empowerment within the communities as they see their experiences being reflected in the developed solutions.42 The participatory approach acknowledges diversity within refugee populations as it recognises one-size-fits-all approaches are no longer effective at addressing varying cultural norms, language barriers and socio-economic backgrounds that exist among refugee communities.43 Collaborating with refugee women in the development of data protection solutions can enhance the cultural appropriateness of implemented strategies, thereby empowering them to safeguard their personal data and bolstering their resilience and autonomy in the process.44

The Refugee Response Plan (RRP) has demonstrated a community-based strategy in addressing the protection requirements of refugee communities in Ouaddaï and Sila provinces of Chad. By engaging local communities through consultations, awareness sessions, and collaborative efforts with humanitarian agencies, these initiatives fostered community ownership and participation in protecting vulnerable individuals, particularly children and women. Through the provision of psychosocial support, recreational activities, and integration into the national education system, the initiatives not only addressed immediate needs but also empowered refugee communities to take proactive measures in safeguarding their rights and well-being.45 This community-driven approach not only enhances the effectiveness of protection interventions but also builds resilience and fosters sustainable solutions that address the unique challenges faced by refugee women, including those related to data protection.


Data protection plays a critical role in helping refugee women navigate opportunities and complexities in the digital field, thereby, empowering them and building resilience. It is essential to protect personal information to gain access to vital services like healthcare and education while maintaining confidentiality helps to safeguard against exploitation. Privacy-oriented mobile apps and data literacy training help refugee women to make informed choices about their data. Community-centric strategies ensure that solutions are culturally appropriate and tailored to individual needs. By emphasising data protection, the focus on refugee women changes from vulnerability to empowerment and agency.

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1 Elmer Aluge, ‘How unleashing the power of data will provide health security for Africa’s displaced’ (2023) World Economic Forum How data can improve health security for Africa’s displaced | World Economic Forum ( accessed 16 April 2024.

2 Teresia Munywoki, ‘Data Protection Challenges for Refugee Women’ (CIPIT, 2024) Data Protection Challenges for Refugee Women in Africa – Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law ( accessed 9 April 2024.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Dragana Kaurin, ‘Data Protection and Digital Agency for Refugees’ (2019) World Refugee Council Research Paper No. 12.

7 Jenna Hennebry and Allison Petrozzielo, ‘Closing the Gender Gap? Gender and the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees’ (2019) International Migration, Volume 57, Issue 6, p. 115 – 138.

8 Anna Bohlin, ‘Protection at the cost of Privacy? A study of the biometric registration of refugees’ (2008) University of Lund.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 UNHCR, ‘Data Protection is part and parcel of refugee protection’ Data protection is part and parcel of refugee protection | UNHCR Blog accessed 15 April 2024.

12 Migration Data Portal, ‘Immigration and emigration statistics’ Migration and Data Protection | Migration Data Portal accessed 13 April 2024.

13 Priscilla Dudhia, ‘Will I ever be safe. Asylum-seeking women made destitute in the UK. London: Women for Refugee Women. Retrieved from Women for Refugee Women.’ (2020).

14 Albert Ali Salah and others, ‘Data for refugees: the D4R challenge on mobility of Syrian refugees in Turkey.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1807.00523 (2018).

15 Ibid.

16 Araa Al Jaramani, Sandra Ponzanesi and Gerwin van Schie, “‘Girls are like Glass’: Situated Knowledges of Syrian Refugee Women on Datafication and Transparency.” (2022).

17 Emrys Schoemaker and others, “Identity at the margins: Data justice and refugee experiences with digital identity systems in Lebanon, Jordan, and Uganda.” (Information Technology for Development, 2021): 13-36.

18 Philippa Metcalfe and Lina Dencik, ‘The politics of big borders: Data (in) justice and the governance of refugees.’ (2019).

19 Gabrielsen Jumbert, Rocco Bellanova, and R. M. Gellert, ‘Smart Phones for Refugees. Tools for Survival, or Surveillance?’ (2018).

20 Aaron Martin. ‘Connecting with confidence: managing digital risks to refugee connectivity.’ UNHCR Innovation (2021).

21 Ibid.

22 Migration Policy Institute, ‘Technology Can Be Transformative for Refugees, but it Can Also Hold Them Back’ Technology Can Be Transformative for Refugees, but It Can Also Hold Them Back – World | ReliefWeb accessed 13 April 2024.

23 Ibid.

24 Khadijah Kainat Eeva-Liisa Eskola, and Gunilla Widén, “Sociocultural barriers to information and integration of women refugees.” (Journal of Documentation, 2022): 1131-1148.

25 Margaret Sullivan Zimmerman and Brianna Rodgers, “Exploring ways of knowing: teaching the skill of health literacy to refugee and immigrant women.” (Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 2022): 245-259.

26 Susan Nicolai, Moizza Binat Sarwar, and Yasser Kosbar, ‘Digitally Powered Learning to Earning for Displaced Young People and Adolescent Girls and Young Women.’ UNICEF (2023).

27 Holly Ritchie, ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ (Handbook on Frugal Innovation. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2023):262-277.

28 Jenny Casswell, ‘What is digital literacy and why does it matter for refugees?’ (UNHCR Innovation Service, 30 November 2023) What is digital literacy and why does it matter for refugees? | by UNHCR Innovation Service | UNHCR Innovation Service | Medium accessed 16 April 2024.

29 Samuel Hall, ‘Exploring the ‘Sprint’ of Digital Literacy for Refugees with Ebengo Honore’ Exploring the ‘Sprint’ of Digital Literacy for Refugees with Ebengo Honore | by Samuel Hall | SAMUEL HALL STORIES | Medium accessed 14 April 2024.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Humanitarian Innovation Fund, ‘Innovating mobile solutions for refugees in East Africa’ (Policy brief 2018).

33 Ibid.

34 UNHCR, ‘Data Protection is part and parcel of refugee protection’ Data protection is part and parcel of refugee protection | UNHCR Blog accessed 15 April 2024.

35 Sarah Quach, Park Thaichon and Kelly Martin, ‘Digital Technologies: tensions in privacy and data’ (2022) Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science p. 1299 – 1323.

36 Aaron Martin, ‘Connecting with confidence: managing digital risks to refugee connectivity.’ UNHCR Innovation (2021).

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Verena Wottrich Eva A. van Reijmersdal, and Edith G. Smit, “App users unwittingly in the spotlight: a model of privacy protection in mobile apps.” (Journal of Consumer Affairs, 2019): 1056-1083.

40 Preksha Nema and others, “Analyzing user perspectives on mobile app privacy at scale.” Proceedings of the 44th International Conference on Software Engineering. 2022.

41 UN Women, ‘In Uganda, refugee women’s leadership drives inclusive humanitarian action’ In Uganda, refugee women’s leadership drives inclusive humanitarian action | UN Women – Headquarters accessed 15 April 2024.

42 Ibid.

43 Lucy Simko and others. “Computer security and privacy for refugees in the United States.” (2018 IEEE symposium on security and privacy (SP). IEEE, 2018).

44 Stephen Kemmis and others, “Introducing critical participatory action research.” (The action research planner: Doing critical participatory action research, 2014): 1-31.

45 Ibid.

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