Where do people put their hope in a crisis?

CommunityConflictGenderResilienceWorking through the local church

A new report* has revealed the importance of faith for people displaced by conflict. It also shows how humanitarian organisations could build on existing social networks to strengthen community resilience in a crisis.

The report found that many displaced Yazidi people, particularly women, had low levels of trust and connection with NGOs. Photo: Sara Guy/Tearfund

Researchers worked with Yazidi and Muslim groups in the Kurdish region of Iraq, many of whom had fled from ISIS. The team, from Tearfund and the Institute of Global Health and Development (IGHD) at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, aimed to find out where people in conflict-affected communities put their trust and support.

To gain these insights they looked at who people turn to in different scenarios. These included, when people had immediate needs for food or other essentials, when they needed to resolve disputes or if someone experienced gender-based violence (GBV).

The key findings were telling: 

The research highlighted faith as a key factor in personal and community resilience during crises. For the majority of people, both men and women, God was their most important source of support. Particularly when considering sensitive issues like GBV, there was a reluctance to access external sources of support, as one woman said, ‘I can only confide in God’.

Family, neighbours and local community actors like faith leaders were more trusted than NGOs and government bodies. Avoiding shame and protecting family honour was a priority in responding to GBV. ‘In our tradition it is better not to share these things with strangers,’ said a Yazidi woman, while another woman described: ‘If a woman went there [to a women’s rights organisation] she would lose her reputation in the wider family.’

The research highlighted further gender disparities. Women had fewer external connections and placed a higher level of trust in their family and local community. Displaced men were more connected to NGOs, but due to constraints around honour, they were increasingly reluctant to turn to traditional coping mechanisms by asking close friends, family or neighbours for support in meeting basic needs, if they were unable to return the favour.

So what do these results tell us? 

These findings highlight the difficulties facing NGOs and other agencies, who recognise that forging connections and gaining the trust of the communities they work with is a powerful tool to help them deliver effective humanitarian aid.

A Yazidi girl looks out of her tent shelter in an informal camp in northern Iraq. Photo: Stella Chetham/Tearfund

In our tradition it is better not to share these things with strangers

‘Better understanding of social norms and the way communities cope with emergencies — and how this impacts men and women differently — is vital to humanitarian agencies like Tearfund,’ says Maggie Sandilands, Tearfund’s Technical Lead for Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Response.

In order for aid work to be effective, agencies need the trust and support of the communities to help identify their needs. Building trust takes time. This is why it is important for organisations to use existing networks in the communities.

‘Faith groups are already there as an integral part of the community,’ notes Maggie. ‘The research highlights the importance of faith, as a key source of support and personal resilience, for people affected by conflict and displacement.’

By empowering and equipping trusted people within the communities, organisations will be in a better position to tackle the issues and stigma that lie behind them and have a long-lasting impact.

Three critical first steps for humanitarian actors and policymakers 

Know who the key influencers are – including religious leaders.

Understand their role, their potential and sphere of influence within their communities, so that strategies can build on community foundations, to design more effective and sustainable responses.

Recognise that for tackling sensitive issues such as gender-based violence and peacebuilding, this understanding becomes an essential first step.

*‘Who Can I Turn To?’ Mapping social connections, trust and problem-solving among conflict-affected populations was published by Tearfund and the Institute of Global Health and Development at Queen Margaret University in July 2017. 

The full report can be found online at www.tearfund.org/socialconnections

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Shaakira Muhammad