Crisis in the Horn of Africa

Crisis in the Horn of Africa
A newly arrived Somali girl looks through a razor wire fence at activities inside the reception center of the Dagahaley refugee camp.

Fatima Mohammed walked 32 days from her drought-ravaged farm in Somalia to the sprawling Dadaab refugee settlement in northeastern Kenya. There were days, she said, when children in the group she walked with were so thirsty that they couldn’t walk. The adults had to ferry them ahead, returning to carry two more children at a time in their arms.

It was a perilous journey along what some have dubbed the “Road from Hell,” but the alternative of remaining in Somalia was even more frightening. When their farm animals started dying from the drought, she said, “Our only choice was to stay and die ourselves or else start walking to Kenya.”

And walk they did. Yet especially for women, the Road from Hell is not just long. It’s dangerous. Women head almost three-quarters of refugee families arriving at Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. Their husbands have remained in Somalia to care for their remaining livestock, or because they’ve been recruited into one of the country’s militias, or because they’re dead. So the women and girls along the road are often alone and especially vulnerable to sexual assault. When they arrive at Dadaab, they find camps that are already overflowing, and so they’re forced to set up their campsite wherever they can find room on the outskirts, far from more secure areas.

They’re also vulnerable to unscrupulous landowners who may show up to charge the women “rent.” Faith Kagwiria, a social worker for the ACT Alliance, which manages the Dadaab complex, says some women have to use any remaining savings as well as sell off the plastic sheets and blankets they may have received from aid agencies to pay off the alleged landowner.

In other cases, Ms. Kagwiria says, men will show up and offer to marry the women, affording them some measure of immediate protection. But she’ll be just one of up to four wives permitted by Somali custom, and once the woman gets pregnant, the man will divorce her and force her to leave. “He gets to keep her land, and she gets to keep his baby,” Ms. Kagwiria said.

Aid agencies that receive new arrivals try to identify women who’ve been victims of sexual violence, but cultural norms discourage refugee women from admitting they’ve been raped. Those who do are often stigmatized and even shunned by others in their clan, leaving them less able to marry — and even more vulnerable economically.

Yet rising awareness has contributed to an increase in reports of sexual and gender-based violence. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 358 such incidents were reported between January and June 2011, in comparison with 75 during the same period in 2010.

Women and girls in Dadaab, like their sisters displaced by conflict and disaster elsewhere around the world, also risk rape and sexual assault when they leave the camp to gather wood to cook food provided by humanitarian agencies. As trees and other vegetation are harvested, they must walk even farther to collect fuel, with each step increasing their vulnerability. In addition, girls often miss out on educational opportunities as they spend hours each day foraging for fuel or caring for siblings at home as their mothers collect firewood.

Aid organizations such as the ACT Alliance have responded by providing improved woodstoves that operate more efficiently, decreasing the need for firewood and thus lowering women’s vulnerability. That effort got a major boost in 2010 when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced U.S. support for the Global Alliance for Clean Woodstoves, a public-private partnership to provide 100 million clean stoves to people in developing countries by 2020.

The ACT Alliance has also nurtured the development of community policing within Dadaab, training scores of refugee women and men as Community Peace and Security Officers. They operate in male-female pairs to mediate local conflicts within the camp. Although violent crimes like rape are referred to the Kenyan police for action, lesser conflicts are usually resolved in a way that assures respect for women’s rights.

The vulnerability of women in the refugee complex and on the road is a reflection of the daily violence suffered by women who remain in Somalia. In addition to well-publicized issues like early marriage and female genital mutilation, women are over-represented in agriculture and the informal economy, contributing to greater vulnerability to climate change. Women are the primary caretakers in the household.

With the onset of a drought, women face extra pressures to survive because, unlike the men, they lack the liberty of migrating in search of work. For young girls, drought often means a higher rate of desertion from schools, as they have to walk even longer distances to obtain water for the household.

As drought spreads throughout the Horn of Africa, women frequently forgo food for themselves in order to feed the children and elderly. In some parts of Somalia and Kenya, women have resorted to stomach binding, a life-threatening practice where they stave off hunger by tying bits of rope or cloth around their stomachs.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent. He lives in Washington State.

Posted or updated: 12/31/2011 11:00:00 PM