Lucy Ng’ang’a, NCCK, Reproductive Health Field Officer
Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
“Sometimes, I wonder if all women are like me, have they gone through what I have, is it a curse? From an ordeal of gang rape, abduction by militiamen, watching as my children are killed or die of hunger, separation from my husband and relatives during war… the list is endless! Thought I had seen a ray of hope by seeking refuge, but it was never to be, there is still more that I go through everyday as a woman…” laments one refugee woman amidst tears from Kakuma Refugee camp.
The above is an example of the moving stories that are narrated to me on a daily basis during my interaction with refugee women. I have heard these stories for the past nine-years in my work as a Reproductive Health Field Officer for the National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK), based here in Kakuma Refugee Camp.
NCCK is mandated by United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide Reproductive Health Advocacy, HIV and AIDS mitigation initiatives. NCCK also has a program for vulnerable women on alternative livelihoods through income generating activities most of whom are traditional beer brewers and or commercial sex workers.
Kakuma Refugee camp is home to more than 78,272 refugees from different nationalities following political instabilities in their countries with the Sudanese being the majority. Over 40% of the total population of these are women. The camp is located in a non-agricultural part of the Kenya, North-West of the capital city Nairobi, approximately over 1,000km away. The temperatures in Kakuma are relatively high, often characterised by hot and dusty weather. During the rainy seasons, the floods from the mountains in Uganda which it borders on the East sweeps across the camp causing massive damages to the refugee semi-permanent shelters, disease outbreaks and renders some parts of the camp inaccessible.
Relief services are offered to the refugees by 11 different humanitarian organisations namely, UNHCR, World Food Program, Lutheran World Federation, National Council of Churches of Kenya, Jesuit Refugee Services, German Technical operation (GTZ), Windle Trust Kenya, Don Bosco, Handicap International, International Rescue Committee, Film Aid International, Red Cross, International Organisation for Migration in collaboration with the local Government of Kenya forces who offer security services.
The life of refugee women is a burden since they have to take the responsibility of raising their families amidst many challenges. Food, one of the basic needs is inadequate as it is supplied bi-monthly and most of the time the family has to adopt skipping meals to make ends meet. When health implications strike as a result, the woman has to take charge to correct this phenomenon.
Most of these women are widows, single parents either divorced or separated during the war as each sought for safety. While gang raping and abduction remains a painful ordeal for a refugee woman, most of the traditional norms paved way for these injustices to continue. Some of the norms have preference towards a boy child rather than a girl child, for example during food distribution days, only girls are out of school to collect their rations from the distribution centres. This is because issues of food among the majority Sudanese is taken to be a woman’s responsibility and is seen as a requirement and an obligation for a traditional woman.
Commercial sex and illicit beer brewing are a growing industry within the camp. After a study was conducted by NCCK, people are now freely discussing issues related to sexual health. Today close to 300 women have been engaged in alternative livelihoods through income generating activities. This has reduced their vulnerability in contracting infectious Sexual Transmitted Disease (STD), HIV and AIDS and is able to provide for their families in a socially and morally acceptable way among other positive results realised.
“After going through so much turmoil dating back to my country Sudan where decision making is entirely done by men, I was forcefully married off to a man against my will. I managed to escape and sought refuge here. I am a mother of four children all from different fathers. I had to engage in commercial sex work to earn a living, with a meagre as 50 Kenyan Shillings (90 cents) or less depending on the generosity of my customers. Thank God that somebody, somewhere was touched by the plight of the refugee women and through NCCK, I was empowered not only with about reducing the risk of vulnerability to HIV and AIDS and STDs but given some grants to start some income generating activities. The woman you see today is totally different from what she was a few years ago. I am a proud woman; I have been able to start a video show business that is run by my son. Through the empowerment I was engaged as peer educator to my fellow women who are in the same dilemma. I can feed, clothe and take care of my children in a socially, dignified and morally acceptable way,” adds another woman.
Gender inequality among the communities still remains a centre of concern for most of the refugee programmes as it negatively impacts on the life of a woman. This in collaboration with the community authority structures such as community leaders, focus on addressing review and revision of the harmful cultural norms. It calls for women working together and supporting each other, not opposing men but working together to realise changes and equal opportunities for women based on qualifications and not gender.
This is a move that will yield peaceful problem solving and perhaps reduce upsurge of refugees influx seeking asylum as countries struggle for freedom and liberty. In Sudanese community for example women are seen as an asset because of the bride price involved, which comes in form of animals. This leaves the women with nothing as most of the decision and benefits are accessed by the men. It even leaves her with no power of her own body let alone her reproductive health rights.
“How I wish that our men could realise that we are also human beings! Give us time to express our feelings and be helpers and not servants, I am scared of saying this in my community as I do not know how they will react to this, if all women would be enlightened through open forums for discussions with our men, maybe situations would change, it would probably ease the agony of a woman in a refugee status and women as a whole,” comments one woman during a workshop conducted by NCCK on Gender based violence.
Through realisation of the importance of woman, change is feasible though challenging in breaking through the rigid traditions. The plight of the woman would be to see her status in the community appreciated and valued through involving her participation in decision-making bodies. It is worth noting that giving women a platform to raise their voices would give them an opportunity to utilise their rich talents and make lives easier for them, bringing an end to the cry of a refugee woman.