by Erin Patrick
In hundreds of refugee and IDP settings throughout the world, women and girls are made more vulnerable to sexual violence because of the almost daily need to leave camps in search of firewood. More can and must be done to reduce this risk.
Perhaps nowhere is the danger of assault whilst gathering firewood more evident than in Darfur. Women and girls trek for hours a day in the hope of finding a few branches or roots to burn. To avoid the midday sun, many leave in the darkness. To lessen competition, they travel alone or in very small groups. To find increasingly scarce combustible material, they may have to walk several kilometres away from the camps. In doing so, they become prime targets for the Janjaweed militia, local government or police forces and other men who act in a climate of almost total impunity.
In August 2006 the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported 200 assaults in a five-week period from a single camp. Medecins sans Frontieres reported over 200 cases per month in 2005. Given the stigma associated with rape, it is extremely likely that the real number of survivors of sexual violence is much higher.
Various UN agencies and NGOs have introduced several ad hoc initiatives to increase the protection of women and girls as they collect wood or to reduce the amount of wood needed for cooking (and therefore the number of collection trips). In late 2005, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children undertook field research to assess the status and impact of these initiatives, which included fuel-efficient stoves, firewood patrols and the development of alternative fuels.