Ethiopia + 1 more

The COMPASS girls give crucial direction to Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia

COMPASS – an all-girl alliance – is steering refugee girls towards fighting sexual and gender-based violence

The sounds of sweet music and chants fill a section of Bambasi Camp, in Ethiopia’s western Benishangul-Gumuz region. This vast community of over 17,000 Sudanese refugees is home to a group of excited young girls who now sing and clap as they welcome each other to another weekly session of fun-filled learning - the COMPASS sessions.

COMPASS is a group for girls of all ages who have one goal - to acquire the skills to protect themselves from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The acronym stands for Creating Opportunities through Mentorship, Parental involvement and Safe Space.

“We learn how to build our self-confidence, how to protect ourselves and how to respect others,” says Siham, 18, a Sudanese refugee and one of the COMPASS girls.

“We also shine bright in the process,” she smiles as she explains that the group is also referred to as Girl Shine, a direct translation from the Arabic word ‘Noor Albanat’.

As a young girl, Siham was caught up in the ravaging conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile State, constantly plagued by the sounds of bombs and gun shots. At only nine, she was forced to flee to Ethiopia where she has lived for seven years.

She has grown up to be courageous and has found acceptance in COMPASS – a group of like-minded girls who she views as something greater than her - something that is potentially changing the lives of over 8,000 refugee girls and women in the camp.

“This camp has saved us. This project has saved us,” explains Siham.

Every week, the COMPASS girls meet in a safe space funded by DFID, the UK’s Aid and Development Agency and a key donor for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The programme is managed by UNHCR’s partner agency, International Rescue Commission (IRC).

Through audio lessons translated in Arabic, mentors who share their culture and language, discuss issues related to violence. The girls also learn various life skills that help them address issues such as early marriage and gender violence in their communities.

“We are empowering these girls to have a voice in their communities and families,” explains Timbit Essayas, IRC’s COMPASS Officer in Bambasi.

She adds that the group guides the girls and helps them to “have a voice and help their parents understand their situation.”

Not only has Siham and her friends learned how to prevent and report cases of SGBV, but they have also been inspired to become advocates for girls’ and women’s rights.

“We are learning how to live life without fear and violence and about our right to education,” she says. “Before I didn’t know anything about life. I think all generations of girls need to come and join and learn with us.”

She hopes to finish her education and become a teacher for girls.

Half of the over 900,000 refugees in Ethiopia are women and girls who are at risk of sexual and/or gender-based violence. This includes survival sex as a coping mechanism, harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation and early marriage, limited access to justice mechanisms and the lack of safe energy sources.

Today, on International Women’s Day, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi reiterates that the ‘Time is Now.’ He has called for further efforts to support women and girls like Siham to achieve their full potential – through better access to education, decent work, legal and health services.

UNHCR and other partner agencies are already working towards this goal in Ethiopia by establishing a strategy that will in coming years, empower refugee women and girls to take part in their protection. The strategy also involves men and boys as key players in this process.

COMPASS has given previously vulnerable girls like Siham a course to follow – a path that leads them towards achieving their dreams.

“We are girls rising up to be our own compass and light, to be our own superheroes in a life where women are steadily being heard and respected,” adds Siham.