Safe haven for women opened at Kakuma refugee camp

from Relief International
Published on 26 Apr 2000
Contact: Mary Anne Fitzgerald or Michelle Brown or (202) 828-0110
When women become refugees, their vulnerability to problems such as rape, domestic violence, and forced marriage substantially increases. Thus, their need for protection increases. Protection is the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR, in cooperation with Jesuit Refugee Services, has implemented an important initiative at Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. The agencies have constructed a safe haven for the protection of refugee women, mostly from Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. In a fenced compound patrolled 24 hours a day by camp security guards, the safe haven provides room, board, and counseling for six women and their children.

Refugees International applauds the UNHCR Kakuma sub-office for its vision in creating a refuge for women and urges others to follow this example.

Almost eighty percent of Africa's refugees are women and their children. These women are often hostage to the discriminatory practices of their societies. Some undergo the indignity of being inherited by a surviving brother on the death of their husband. Others live in daily terror of domestic violence that is exacerbated by cramped living conditions. Women who are raped in conflict or in flight frequently relive the same trauma in the very place where they have sought safety. For example, at Knembwa Camp in Tanzania, 26% of Burundian women between the ages of 12 and 49, who had already suffered ethnic violence that included rape, had been raped again since becoming a refugee, according to a study by the International Rescue Committee.

Adolescent girls, orphaned or separated from their families, are particularly neglected with no programs for their specific needs. They are placed in foster care with refugee families from their own ethnic group. While some are adequately cared for, others live in domestic slavery or suffer sexual assault. Instead of attending school, they are forced to fetch water and firewood, cook and look after their foster siblings.

In their staunchly patriarchal societies, women and girls are deemed little more than chattel. Or, as a Sudanese woman explained, "We keep silent until we die." This note of resignation cuts to the heart of a dilemma where cultural beliefs and bureaucratic procedures are pitted against the urgent needs of those at risk of violence. The Kakuma safe haven is a small step in the process of protecting those most at risk.

The safe haven will protect women and children who have been victims of violence. However, for protection procedures to genuinely safeguard the well-being of women and girls, it is vital that all safe havens, including the one at Kakuma, admit women and girls who are in imminent danger of physical violence as well as those who have already become victims of violent attacks.

Refugees International recommends that:

§ Safe havens offer protection those who are at imminent risk of gender violence as well as those who are victims of violence.

§ Bureaucratic procedures be streamlined to allow same-day admittance at the recommendation of community service workers, members of the UNHCR protection unit or members of a refugee women's support group; or upon convincing evidence provided by the woman or girl at risk.

§ UNHCR circulate admittance guidelines widely among camp personnel and train staff of organizations involved with referrals in uniform procedures.

§ Camp authorities ensure that the safe haven compound is secure with barred windows, an indoor toilet and security guards on 24-hour patrol.

§ UNHCR allows women to stay at the safe haven until their safety and well-being on their return to the community can reasonably be assured. Community workers and security personnel should collaborate to ensure that the threat to a woman, once back in her community, is eliminated to the greatest degree possible.

Mary Anne Fitzgerald, RI's Africa Representative, recently returned from a trip to Kakuma.