Research-Informed Social Enterprises with South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda: A Partnership Project

By Helen Liebling, Hazel Barrett and Pascal Niyonkuru – May, 2019

Health Centre 4 in Bidi Bidi.

Helen Liebling, Hazel Barrett and Pascal Niyonkuru’s work demonstrates how the impact of qualitative research can be maximised to effect real changes in the lives of marginalised people. The researchers report on how they used their participatory research on the experiences of South Sudanese refugees to start social enterprises for the purposes of empowerment and capacity building. Their hope is that their intervention will serve as a model that other refugees could benefit from.

The conflict in South Sudan is characterized by human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence and torture, with over 1.5 million South Sudanese fleeing to Northern Uganda.

Our innovative research project (funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme) focused on the impact of SGBV and torture on refugees’ health, including their psychological and reproductive health. It analysed health, welfare and social justice needs of men and women refugees from their own and service providers’ perspectives. The research team investigated the experiences of 31 women and 20 men refugee survivors living in 3 locations in Adjumani and Bidi Bidi refugee settlements and 32 key stakeholders.

Our findings

Our findings indicated refugees pressing needs were to improve access to livelihoods as well as emotional support. We found that women refugees end up taking sole responsibility for maintaining households, while men torture survivors found themselves unable to contribute to supporting households. These men were frequently unregistered since they often arrived in Uganda after their wives and also did not register for safety. As a result, men refugees could not access treatment for their injuries. Their health problems left men unable to work and support their families.

A 47-year-old male refugee interviewed in Adjumani told us “when I was in South Sudan, the soldier services have arrested me, they tortured me, they bit me and now I feel pain, my neck here is in pain, even my head.

The sparse services in Uganda struggled to respond to refugees’ health and social justice needs. Although services were better for women refugees, the women told us they were at risk of sexual- and gender-based violence from locals, relatives, and other refugees and that they lacked personal security.

A 38-year-old woman in Bidi Bidi stated: “When I reached here, my husband followed me and started to beat me again, he came and removed everything from the house. I reported to IRC (International Red Cross) protection house and found out I was pregnant”.

Specialist reproductive, gynaecological and maternity health services for women survivors were particularly lacking. (This video provides a further glimpse of life in the refugee camp.)

Putting the findings to work

In order to utilise the research to inform interventions to assist the refugees set up and establish social enterprises, the researchers successfully obtained Enterprise funding from Coventry University. Through the activities supported by this funding, six refugee social enterprise groups have since been established in Bidi Bidi and Adjumani refugee settlements. The refugee survivors comprised of those we had interviewed in the previous study and were assisted to develop their own social enterprise groups using their own skills, interest, and initiative. The researchers provided training in developing and running a social enterprise as well as strategies for emotional support.

Tailor Lebuje camp, Uganda (Wiki Commons)

In one settlement, a group of women refugees chose trading and selling items as their business. Another group in the same settlement chose to bring women and men refugee survivors together and establish a micro-finance and lending project for their business. In the other refugee settlement men and women refugees decided to establish a soap making business and combined together for this purpose. All of the social enterprises needed to choose a business that would be sustainable. The groups were also encouraged to meet regularly, assist each other with their projects as well as providing emotional support and strategies for increasing their well-being and sharing any challenges.

To maximise capacity building and sustainability, our project works in close collaboration with the Refugee Law Project, Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange and Kitgum Women’s Peace Initiative, all international community-based organisations in Uganda. The project utilises participatory methodologies aimed at empowering refugees and capacity building Ugandan organisations.

Distribution of food by UNHCR in Bidi Bidi

Looking ahead

The inention is that the social enterprise groups will improve the lives of the 36 women and men refugees, their families and communities. It is envisaged that they will enable refugees to care for their health and that of their family more effectively, educate their children and improve their livelihoods.

We are returning to Adjumani and Bidi Bidi in July 2019 to evaluate the refugees experiences of the social enterprises and its’ impact on their health and emotional well-being. Our hope is that the intervention will serve as a model of peer support social-enterprise scheme that other refugees could benefit from.


To support South Sudanese refugees living in settlements in northern Uganda, please donate here.


Dr Helen Liebling is an Assistant Professor in Clinical Psychology & Associate of Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University and Clinical Lead for Refugee Services in Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Partnership Trust. Helen has carried out research with survivors of conflict and post-conflict sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and torture including refugees, in Africa and UK since 1998. She has numerous journal publications and two books (Liebling-Kalifani, 2009; Liebling & Baker, 2010). Helen has provided consultancies, training and interventions to improve support for survivors and works closely with Isis-WICCE, Uganda. Helen was invited as an expert panel member to plan a five year international research agenda on SGBV in conflict settings. She is a member of the Tearfund/Sexual Violence Research Initiative steering group on the role of faith-based organisations in preventing conflict SGBV.

Professor Hazel Barrett holds a Chair in Development Geography and is a social scientist who has undertaken primary research in sub-Saharan Africa for the last 40 years, including in The Gambia, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Her research has focussed on rural livelihoods, gender issues, public health challenges, childhood and traditional harmful practices such as FGM. She specialises in participatory action research and community-based methods, particularly focussing on issues of social justice, social norm transformation and behaviour change. She has recently been undertaking research with South Sudanese refugees who have suffered torture and/or SGBV who are living in refugee settlements in Northern Uganda.

Dr Pascal Niyonkuru is a gender expert who has undertaken multi-method research (quantitative and qualitative) on Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiatives with rural communities in the East African countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. His research has been on the processes leading to the social and economic development and the resultant patterns of inequality in the developing countries of Africa. In particular, his work focuses on social-economic inequalities including gender, health and education together with economic challenges in the rural communities including knowledge, information and education; agriculture and land; suitable jobs; green energy; markets and participation in policy dialogue and rural organisations.

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