Kenya: Empowering refugee women through training

By Linda Bartolomei
In February, I returned to Kenya with other research team members from the University of New South Wales, Australia, with whom JRS is a research partner.

It was on our first visit to Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, in February 2002 as guests of Don Bosco that we met Sr. Christina Mc Glynn (former JRS project director) and learned about JRS's excellent work in the camp. We shared Sr. Christina's concern about the many refugee women at risk in the camp and were delighted to hear about the JRS Safe Haven and counselling program.

Through a small refugee women's organisation in Australia called The Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW), we have worked for many years with other groups to ensure that the needs of refugee women and their families are addressed both in Australia and internationally. Inspired by the work of JRS in the camp and confronted by the problems Sr. Christina was facing in helping women at risk, we returned to Australia and sought the funding for a Refugee Women at Risk research project. Throughout the application period we liased closely with JRS in Kenya as well as with the JRS offices in Australia and Thailand.

The project aims to identify and address the range of problems and dangers which confront refugee women who are at extreme risk. Although the overall aim of the project is to influence the international law and policy and service provision relating to women at risk, we also hope to make a series of positive contributions to the life of refugee women and to the work of our partners during the course of the research. This has included providing a range of training courses to aid the work of JRS staff in the field.

During this visit, a colleague provided a four-day trainings course for the counsellors in Kakuma Camp. This course focused, particularly, on working with refugee women who were survivors of sexual violence. In November last year, at the request of the JRS project working in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, with Burmese refugees, we provided a four-day introductory course on Human Rights and gender to 120 refugee participants. During that visit, we also provided a five-day human rights documentation course, which had been requested by a Burmese Refugee women's group. Our approach in each of these courses has been to identify and support the capacities and strengths of the refugee participants. We hope we have been successful.

Without the generous support of our partners this would have been an impossible project. We are very grateful for the huge amount of time that all of the staff at JRS Nairobi and Kakuma have put in to host our visits, to provide us access to clients and introductions to other NGOS. For the Health researchers on our team the assistance of JRS staff in providing introductions to Kenyan medical staff and NGOs was invaluable. Both visited Kakuma camp for the first time and although they were overwhelmed by the harsh conditions in which the refugees survive they were deeply impressed by the commitment of JRS and other field staff.

We were delighted to visit the JRS university project in the camp, to meet with students and view the growing library. We are all impressed by the approach taken by JRS, which seeks to identify, support and enhance the capacities of women, men and children who live as refugees in the camp. Each of us has learnt a great deal from this visit, and we hope that in some small way, we might use the knowledge to bring about positive change for refugee women and their families and to support the work of JRS.

Though I have visited Kakuma camp on three occasions, each time, I am both deeply distressed and angered by the conditions in which thousands of people have lived for many years. We hope, through this project, to do what we can to raise the awareness of the international community and in particular of the people of Australia about what is happening here and in other situations in which millions of people are displaced from their homes by war and conflict. I am privileged to come from a rich country and I do indeed think we could all do more!

Linda Bartolomei is a member of the team from the University of New South Wales, Australia, with whom JRS is a research partner.