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Harnessing Women’s Creative Capacity for Change: Women-Centered Design for Emergencies

A women-centered design process to promote safety and well-being for women displaced by conflict or disaster.

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Violence against women is a global epidemic that affects 1 in 3 women worldwide [1]. In developed and developing settings, victimization is linked to poor long-term physical and psycho-social health, such as increased risk of HIV, unintended pregnancy, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation [1-3]. The effects of violence against women span entire societies, as the costs of treatment for violence-related injury and health problems, loss of productive days of work, and loss of other societal contributions, amount to an estimated 1-2% of GDP, or $1.5 trillion, globally [4,5].

In a humanitarian crisis, family structure changes, support network erosion, reduced access to basic rights and services, and diminished rule of law, can all exacerbate vulnerability to violence [6,7]. Vulnerability to victimization when fleeing areas of conflict and disaster can be compounded by social norms and traditional gender roles condoning gender-based violence once women reach humanitarian support structures such as refugee or displaced camps. Gendered division of household responsibilities such as firewood and water collection, and use of public spaces created in camps such as communal latrines, can put women at risk of victimization in camp settings [8,9]. Furthermore, alarming rates of violence victimization from male partners indicates that the household itself may not be a safe place for women in these settings [10,11]. Exposure to violence within and outside the household during emergencies can have long-term consequences, as evidence demonstrates intergenerational linkages between emergencies and violence victimization [12,13].

Given the magnitude of the current humanitarian crisis, with more that 65 million people displaced due to conflict, existing systems and structures are unable to adequately address issues of women’s safety. Despite humanitarian organizations’ efforts of to develop programs and guidelines that address and prevent gender-based violence, women’s safety remains a serious problem in humanitarian settings [11]. International guidelines on minimizing and preventing gender-based violence are often not followed or only partially implemented [14]. While the Sphere standards provide instructions on how humanitarian action can incorporate mechanisms to prevent gender based violence, they do not put women’s safety at the center of planning and assistance. Furthermore, these standards are created for a top-down humanitarian structure which, to date, has not effectively tapped into the enormous amount of creative potential on the part of the displaced to participate in designing programs, initiatives, products or systems to combat gender-based violence or increase women’s safety. Thus, three elements converge as barriers to preventing gender-based violence in humanitarian settings: high prevalence and acceptability of gender-based violence, lack of women’s participation in actively designing solutions that effectively address this violence, and lack of political will and resources to prevent gender-based violence in emergencies.

Failure to include women’s voices in humanitarian infrastructure ignores the pivotal role of women in rebuilding their societies after conflict or disaster, and the potential for generation of creative and entrepreneurial solutions to arise from survivors of such crises. In times of crisis, women engage in activities ranging from small-scale entrepreneurship, to organizing educational opportunities, to advocating for peace at the national level [15]. Gender roles and norms may shift as women take on roles that may have previously been reserved for men in many cultures; these shifts may lead to long-term gains in the rights of women in their communities [16]. The Liberian women’s peace movement serves as just one example of the myriad ways in which, despite increased risk of violence and trauma during humanitarian crises, women lead efforts to rebuild peace and hope in their communities [15]. 

Supporting refugee-led innovation initiatives, specifically those solutions generated by women, may result in more effective and appropriate solutions to the epidemic of violence against women in humanitarian crises. At the center of this proposal is a desire to address the following three challenges:

  • How can we put women’s safety in refugee camps at the center of planning processes, services and systems?
  • How can we increase refugee participation in innovative design to find ways to increase women’s safety in the camps?
  • How does the proposed solution reduce gender based violence in camps and increase women’s agency?


We seek to bring more participation of displaced women into strategies and planning for preventing, reducing and mitigating gender based violence. We will train refugees in the design process and support them to develop innovative ways to increase women’s safety in the camps and impact the way aid providers develop GBV programming. We propose a five-stage approach, working with refugee women and will pilot it in two of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world today: Syrian refugees in Greece and South Sundanese refugees in Uganda.

  • Train refugees in camps in Greece and Uganda to use the design process to identify barriers to women’s safety in the camps and then develop and prototype solutions to address these issues.
  • Engage refugees who have gone through the design training along with designers, engineers, architects and NGO workers in a co-design workshop to design shelters and structures that prioritize women’s safety. 
  • Provide support to build and test those designs as a pilot project in each camp.
  • Research the impact of the design training and the co-design process on women’s safety, well-being and agency as well as the impact on reducing and preventing gender based violence in the camps.  
  • Convene a group of thought leaders to envision the design of a camp with women’s safety at the center.


The first stage consists of Creative Capacity Building (CCB) trainings that promote local technology development, design and innovation, along with makerspaces that provide ongoing mentorship and support. Developed by the D-Lab at MIT, CCB promotes design by the intended beneficiaries and users, and focuses on the process of innovation, not just the products of innovation. It engages participants as active creators of technology, rather than passive recipients. The CCB curriculum is a multi-day, hands-on training that develops tools, technologies, programs and systems that address challenges identified by the participants themselves. The technologies and tools developed in these trainings have encompassed a wide range of themes, including agricultural processing, income generation, mobility and recycling and reuse of waste materials. For this program, the CCB training would focus on projects that improve safety in the camp. The trainings will put women’s safety at the center. If deemed appropriate, involving men may build alliances and networks of support for improving women’s safety and help increase local ownership and buy-in, rather than replacement for, women's voices. The initial training and follow up activities would take place at a maker space equipped with dedicated staff and tools and materials for participants to develop, test, and implement their own solutions to safety and well-being concerns.

Once the participants have gone through the training and created their own solutions around safety problems they have identified, they will have some grounding in the design process. This allows us to move into co-design of shelters that place women’s safety at the center, bringing together “users” (refugee women), technical experts in architecture, design and engineering, and sector experts in emergency housing and shelter. We will hold a two-week co-design summit at both sites; each summit will engage several multi-stakeholder teams in the design of improved shelters and structure, and each team will produce sketch models of the solutions that they envision. The co-design summit provides the space to combine technical expertise in design and construction, with local expertise of displaced women and men to together identify solutions to close the gaps identified through research. Throughout this process, partnerships with humanitarian organizations will be central to illuminating key areas where humanitarian infrastructure can be reformed on a more systematic level to include the voices and needs of women in the design of physical spaces for displaced persons. At the end of each summit, there will be a selection process to determine which of the designs should move forward to the third stage, building and testing.

The third stage will support the development of these prototypes for pilots in both sites. 

We will conduct research to determine the impact of this strategy on women’s safety, agency and experiences of gender based violence. A mixed-methods approach will combine quantitative quasi-experimental data on the impact of ideas generated through the CCB design process on women’s psychosocial well-being and safety from violence, with qualitative interviews on women’s interactions with the humanitarian cluster system. Qualitative research will explore the long-term potential for including displaced women’s voices in cluster system design and decision-making.

The project will culminate in a three-day event that will engage thought leaders in humanitarian innovation, camp coordination and design, and emergency shelter (including participants from the earlier stages of the project) in a design workshop to envision a refugee camp that is designed with women’s safety at the center. The outputs of this event, along with the research from stage four, will be shared with members of the OCHA cluster system with the hope of impacting future design of camps.



1.            World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council. Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Italy: World Health Organization;2013.

2.            Zablotska IB, Gray RH, Koenig MA, et al. Alcohol use, intimate partner violence, sexual coercion and HIV among women aged 15-24 in Rakai, Uganda. AIDS Behav. 2009;13(2):225-233.

3.            Pallitto CC, Campbell JC, O'Campo P. Is intimate partner violence associated with unintended pregnancy? A review of the literature. Trauma, violence & abuse. 2005;6(3):217-235.

4.            Duvvury N, Callan A, Carney P, Raghavendra S. Intimate Partner Violence: Economic Costs and Implications for Growth and Development. Women's Voice, Agency, and Participation Research Series 2013; http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/412091468337843649/pdf/825320WP0Intim00Box379862B00PUBLIC0.pdf, 3.

5.            Puri L. The economic costs of violence against women. Paper presented at: Economic Cost of Violence against Women2016.

6.            Usta J, Farver J. Child sexual abuse in Lebanon during war and peace. Child: care, health and development. 2010;36(3):361-368.

7.            Amowitz LL, Reis C, Lyons KH, et al. Prevalence of war-related sexual violence and other human rights abuses among internally displaced persons in Sierra Leone. Jama. 2002;287(4):513-521.

8.            Patrick E. Sexual violence and firewood collection in Darfur. Forced Migration Review. 2007;27:40-41.

9.            Schulte J, Rizvi Z. In Search of Safety and Solutions: Somali Refugee Adolescent Girls at Sheder and Aw Barre Camps, Ethiopia. New York: Women's Refugee Commission;2012.

10.          Stark L, Wessells M. Sexual violence as a weapon of war. Jama. 2012;308(7):677-678.

11.          Stark L, Roberts L, Wheaton W, Acham A, Boothby N, Ager A. Measuring Violence against Women Amidst War and Displacement in Northern Uganda Using the ‘Neighborhood Method’. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2009.

12.          Sriskandarajah V, Neuner F, Catani C. Predictors of violence against children in Tamil families in northern Sri Lanka. Social Science & Medicine. 2015;146:257-265.

13.          Ehrensaft MK, Cohen P, Brown J, Smailes E, Chen H, Johnson JG. Intergenerational transmission of partner violence: A 20-year prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2003;71(4):741-753.

14.          Women's Refugee Commission. UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women and Guidelines on Their Protection: An Assessment of Ten Years of Implementation. New York, NY: Women's Refugee Commission;2002.

15.          Fuest V. ‘This is the Time to Get in Front’: Changing Roles and Opportunities for Women in Liberia. African Affairs. 2008;107(427):201-224.

16.          Read-Hamilton S, Marsh M. The Communities Care programme: changing social norms to end violence against women and girls in conflict-affected communities. Gender & Development. 2016;24(2):261-276.



Explain your idea

A five-stage process combines training in design thinking with opportunities for collaboration between refugees, technical experts, and humanitarian actors, to generate solutions to problems of women’s safety and well-being in humanitarian settings. Working with refugee women, we will pilot a design thinking process in two of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world today: Syrian refugees in Greece and South Sundanese refugees in Uganda. 1. Train refugees in Grecian and Ugandan camps to use Creative Capacity Building (CCB) design process to identify barriers to women’s safety in the camps, and develop and prototype solutions to address these issues. 2. Engage refugees who have completed design training along with designers, engineers, architects and NGO workers, in co-design workshop to design shelters and structures that prioritize women’s safety. 3. Provide support to build and test those designs as pilot projects in each camp. 4. Research impact of design training and co-design process on women’s safety, well-being and agency as well as impact on reducing and preventing gender based violence in the camps. 5. Convene group of thought leaders to envision design of a camp that centers women’s safety. The first stage consists of CCB trainings to promote local technology development, design and innovation, along with makerspaces that provide ongoing mentorship and support. CCB promotes design by the intended beneficiaries and users, and focuses on the process of innovation, not just tangible products. The CCB curriculum is a multi-day, hands-on training that develops tools, technologies, programs and systems that address challenges identified by the participants themselves. A two-week co-design workshop, held at each site, will bring together refugees, technical experts in architecture, design and engineering, and sector experts in emergency housing and shelter. Each summit will engage several multi-stakeholder teams in the design of improved shelters and structure, and each team will produce sketch models of the solutions that they envision. At the end of each summit, a selection process will determine which designs should move forward to the third stage, building and testing. The third stage will support the development of these prototypes for pilots in both sites. Mixed-methods research will determine impact of this strategy on women’s safety, agency and experiences of gender based violence. Findings will demonstrate impact of ideas generated from design workshops, and explore long-term potential for including displaced women’s voices in cluster system design and decision-making. A culminating three-day design workshop will engage thought leaders in humanitarian innovation, camp coordination and design, and emergency shelter, to envision a refugee camp that is designed with women’s safety at the center.

Who Benefits?

Displaced women in refugee camps in Uganda and Greece will benefit from the opportunity to learn to use design thinking to solve their own problems, and from more secure and humane spatial architecture in the communities in which they reside. Humanitarian response teams will benefit from a new approach to designing spaces meant to house displaced populations, and from a new strategy to elicit meaningful participation of displaced women in problem-solving. A wider network of groups including government organizations, local community organizations, innovator groups, universities, aid groups, and multilateral organizations, as well as organizations or groups that emerge in camps or displaced settings, will benefit from the knowledge gained from the research conducted as part of this project.

How is your idea unique?

The primary goal of this proposal a long-term approach for community-driven development of holistic solutions to problems such as gender-based violence. Our approach recognizes the pivotal role of displaced women in supporting their communities, and prioritizes displaced women’s participation in the process of designing solutions to problems that affect their safety and health. This approach also acknowledges the need to engage with the existing structures and systems that affects women’s safety and access to resources within in their communities. Working with both NGOs and the affected population on design projects allows for dynamic communication and mutual learning which can make humanitarian innovation not only more effective, but much more deeply rooted in the needs and priorities of the affected population. Our expertise in design and innovation, and social norms, gender relations, and measurement in humanitarian crises, positions us well to implement this approach.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Tell us more about you

The CPC Learning Network and MIT’s D-Lab bring expertise in development of innovative community-driven solutions, and measurement of sensitive issues such as violence against women and children. Further, this partnership brings established relationships with actors in the humanitarian cluster system, and extensive experience in a diverse range of emergency settings, including but not limited to northern Uganda, Rwanda, Jordan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Care and Protection of Children (CPC) Learning Network has been housed within the Department of Population and Family Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health since 2005. Bringing together over 30 faculty affiliates from within Columbia University and beyond and operating in over 30 countries, the CPC Learning Network convenes academics, policymakers, and practitioners to promote innovative research, nurture communities of learning, and build the next generation of researchers and advocates for children and families worldwide. CPC Learning Network has expertise in collaboration with international institutions to measure and address violence against women and children among displaced and refugee populations. Methodological innovations include the neighborhood method, which illuminated the high prevalence of violence against women and girls within the home in multiple contexts and Participatory Ranking Methodology (PRM), which encourages community members to build consensus around local priorities for intervention (see Stark et al. 2013 and Stark et al. 2009). Community-led change processes include a teenage pregnancy intervention in Sierra Leone. D-Lab at MIT helped begin an initiative called Rethink Relief in April 2010 with the vision of creating more sustainable technologies and products to fill the gaps between the initial humanitarian response to a disaster or conflict, and the resettlement and recovery that follows. After convening three design summits around this topic, through Rethink Relief, D-Lab now has a vision of expanding this work to promote a more holistic strategy towards promoting innovation in humanitarian situations, and is developing a four-prong approach that focuses on: • Training people in camps and crisis situations in the design process to build their capacity to create and develop technologies or services that address challenges that they face in their lives, both during and after the crisis. • Designing products that address immediate needs while simultaneously preparing people for future resettlement and transition, through an inclusive and collaborative process. • Developing an ecosystem of programs and partners that have a holistic approach and consider both the physical and psychological well-being of refugees and displaced people throughout their entire relief experience. • Impacting the way humanitarian aid is provided.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

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