Guinea + 1 more

Guinea: Refugees elect majority women committee to manage camp

On 14 June Liberian refugees in the Lainé camp in southern Guinea voted out their former camp committee. After serving two and a half years, the original committee members were replaced by the election of a new female-majority committee to manage the camp.

According to JRS staff working in the camp, the former committee was unresponsive to demands for internal improvements in management accountability, which prompted the call for elections. Reports from the camp staff indicate the elections provided the only means for the refugees to voice their discontent without fear of individual retribution.

"Everything was controlled: from food distribution to house repairs. Only those who paid enough money received assistance from the committee. The former committee members made a large amount of money selling tickets for food distribution", said a JRS staff member.

In May of this year the poor management situation was compounded by a decline in the assistance provided to the camp by the World Food Programme (WFP)-including food distribution-due to resource shortages. Critics accused the international community of trying to force the refugees back home. Between November 2004 and February 2005, less than 2,000 refugees had participated in the facilitated repatriation process back to Liberia.

"There were many complaints about this committee for a long time. Finally, the refugees acted. The great news is that women were the ones who ran in the election, and they won. The refugees acted through their votes. Before, they were really too afraid to complain directly to the committee itself," reported the JRS staff member.

According to reports from JRS staff, refugee women encouraged other women in the camp to run as candidates in the various zones of the camp. In each zone between one and three of the possible candidates were women, and in the end, 16 out of the 27 zones supported those women running as candidates for positions in the camp committee.

However, some refugees in the camps were concerned about the possibility of women serving on the committee. Before the election, Nancy, the committee president-elect, was told by members of the old committee to withdraw her candidacy. She claims the former committee member said it was "a man's position." Additionally, refugees in the camp reported that pressure was put on them to vote for the outgoing committee if they wanted to continue to live in peace.

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the Guinean government National Bureau for Refugees quickly confirmed the election of the committee. While the new committee members have already assumed their positions, it remains to be seen if they will encounter resistance.

Lainé Camp is home to over 22,000 registered Liberian refugees, of which over 12,000 are women. It is a sprawling settlement of palm thatched huts 70 km north of N'zerekore, the main town in the Forest Region of Southeast Guinea. Delivery to refugee camps in the N'Zerekore region has become very challenging due to poor road conditions and food shortages. It currently takes seven days for the trucks coming from the Guinean capital, Conakry, to reach Lainé camp. Almost all the refugees in the camp rely on food distribution.

Guinea is the largest country of asylum for Liberian refugees in West Africa. At the beginning of the year, Guinea was sheltering some 149,000 Liberians who fled during their country's 14-year civil war.

In 2002, JRS began working in Lainé Camp. The teams provide vocational training, informal education services to refugees with disabilities, loans to begin small business, kindergarten classes, and various other cultural and community services.