Thousands of Somalis who have trekked vast distance across land where it no longer seem to rain have been pushed to the margins of the over-crowded Dadaab refugee complex, where women and young girls are vulnerable to attacks and sexual abuse when they go into the bushes to collect firewood. Mohammed Yusuf reports.
On the outskirts of north-eastern Kenya’s Ifo refugee camp, which along with Hagadera and Dagahaley makes up a complex now housing almost 400,000 people, a group of twenty women are trudging back from the bush, carrying bundles of firewood on their backs.
Asha Ahmed, 35, who arrived three months ago, says it usually takes them five hours every day to go to bushes to collect firewood and come back to the camp.
“We start our journey to the bush at six in the morning,” she says. “We have to go in a group of about ten people; if we are less than that we don’t go, because there are people in the bush who rape women and young girls.”
Asha has avoided becoming a victim herself, so far, but she says that many others have not been so fortunate.
“I count myself lucky: every day they are so many women raped,” she says. “I don’t know who these people that are doing this … if they are men from host community or refugees themselves.”
It’s very difficult to police the insecure outskirts of the camps, where new arrivals set up their structures made of sticks, flattened milk cans and pieces of cloth.
Khadija Abdi, 50, a mother of three daughters, says they are not even safe from sexual abuse in their makeshift huts.
“We are not safe here, especially at night,” she says. “We sleep in groups of about five in a small hut; we even wake each other up in the middle of the night when one of us wants to go to the latrine. It is not our wish to live and sleep like animals, but we would be raped if we don’t sleep together at night.”
Sinead Murray, gender-based violence program manager for the International Rescue Committee, says sexual abuse against women has increased dramatically since the number of refugees fleeing the drought in Somalia shot up this year, overwhelming facilities that were already strained to breaking point.
“There are many risk factors, especially on the outskirts,” she says. “Limited access to security, lack of shelter, women’s need to go to bush to collect firewood and also issues of latrines and limited access to basic supplies can lead to exploitation and abuse.”
Steps have been put in place to tackle the problem, but they are having a limited effect.
David Mulwa, a forestry officer, said twelve years ago they started firewood procurement and distribution.
“Firewood procurement and distribution started as a result of increase of rape cases in the late 90s; the project was given to the host community to distribute firewood to the camps,” he says.
However, these kinds of programs only benefit those inside the designated camp areas, and the lack of space means the vulnerable population is growing. International aid agencies cannot provide such services to the likes of Asha and Khadija, since the land they build their structures on belongs to the Kenyan host community.
Murray frequently visits outskirts of the Hagadera camp in an attempt to provide counseling for victims of rape.
“Since the reception center opened, it’s been a good mechanism to facilitate referrals for survivors of sexual violence,” she says. “We have realized we are not capturing enough of them.”
According to Murray, the priority is to reach new arrivals and reduce their vulnerability.
“This week we have been giving dignity kits at the women’s centers – basic materials, sandals, whistles and spotlights so that they can have some protection in the outskirts at night,” she says. “We also trying to draw women together and create support networks, we encourage them to walk in groups when collecting firewood, which some of them have started doing.”