Gender violence and kidnapping of women and children at Kakuma refugee camp

Contact: Mary Anne Fitzgerald 25 42 44 57 99 - Shep Lowman (202) 828-0110
Last month Mary was a contented wife and mother whose daily routine revolved around caring for her husband and three children. This tranquil existence has disintegrated into a nightmare since the appearance of her brother two weeks ago. Now Mary's brother is encamped on her doorstep, the family emissary sent to reclaim her for marriage to a higher bidder, in Southern Sudan, who is able to provide the 50-odd head of cattle that her family requires as a bride price. Her husband has fled to the safety of a nearby town while Mary (not her real name) lives in constant fear of being kidnapped and smuggled back to Southern Sudan. Angered by her refusal to return, Mary's brother says he will seize the children instead. He knows only too well that if he abducts her young son and daughter and suckling infant, she will be forced to follow.

Mary's case is one of many at Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya where the kidnapping of women and children constitute the majority of cases of gender violence. Like other such women, she is a victim of the Dinka and Nuer custom of forced marriage. Mary and her husband wed in Southern Sudan while fleeing the war that rages there. A refugee, he is unable to complete payment of the bridal dowry owed to her family.

Viewed through the prism of their starkly patriarchal culture, the men who seize women and children from their huts under the cover of darkness are merely fulfilling familial obligations. Women are considered chattels that represent wealth and, as such, have no say in their fate.

Mothers fear for their daughters who, by the age of 15, are deemed by men to be ready for marriage. Tradition inflicts equally oppressive torment on widows. Custom dictates that, when a man dies, his wife and children are taken on by a surviving brother.

For these women, how to protect themselves, their young children and teenage daughters from these raids is a daunting proposition. Men of military age tend to remain in Southern Sudan where they form the ranks of rebel forces fighting for secession from Sudan. This is why many women at Kakuma are the single head of household. Even here, tradition holds sway and women have no say in what happens to them. Ethnic communities within the camp are administered by male elders who endorse the practice of brideprice and forced marriage. Women who complain they fear being abducted are mocked and their pleas for protection ignored.

"It is a constant torture for them. What these men are doing is slow terrorism. They come into the camp and hang around until they get the chance to abduct a girl at night," explains an aid worker. "There has to be well-founded fear of assault before they can get protection [from the camp authorities], but by then it's too late to do anything about it."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata denounced violence against women in a press release issued March 8, the day designated around the world as International Women's Day. Citing rape and other forms of violence perpetrated against women and young girls, she declared safeguarding women from gender-related persecution a UNHCR priority. Refugees International applauds this decision and calls for action to be taken now.

Historically, the physical security of refugees has been the responsibility of the host country. Refugees International believes it is essential for the UNHCR and other United Nations security personnel to expand their role in finding ways to assist the host country in ensuring the physical security of refugees in camps. Measures can and must be implemented urgently.

It is time for the spirit of the International Women's Day to be translated into action. Women and young girls have universal rights that transcend the mores of their particular culture and society. These rights must be honored so that they are no longer silent hostages to discriminatory practices.

Refugees International recommends that:

  • Funds from the $1.65 million grant from the U.S.-based United Nations Foundation to combat sexual violence in refugee communities in sub-Saharan Africa or from other sources be committed to Kakuma for gender awareness programs, enhanced security within the camps, and counselors for women.
  • Extra diligence be taken in providing physical security for those women who have reason to fear kidnapping, assault, and other forms of violence.
  • Shelters be constructed at Kakuma and other refugee camps as safe houses where women and their children can be admitted immediately and with the minimum of bureaucratic procedure if they are seen to be at risk of violence.
  • Women of all ethnic communities at Kakuma and other refugee camps be encouraged and assisted in being elected to positions on the administration committees of such communities.

Mary Anne Fitzgerald, RI's Senior Advocate based in Nairobi, recently visited Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

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