Amal* left her village in Somalia when she realized that there was nothing left there for her. There was no food and no water. So she gathered her emaciated children and began the long trek to the refugee camps in northeastern Kenya. She thought that being forced to leave her home would be the worst thing to ever happen to her.
That was until she was attacked and raped by bandits on the way.
I recently returned from Kenya, where Somali women and families are seeking refuge by the thousands. I met with Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji of MADRE’s sister organization, Womankind Kenya, a grassroots women’s organization of Somali pastoralists. We talked about the most urgent needs for famine refugees—for food and water—and about how MADRE and Womankind Kenya can work together to provide for them.
And Hubbie told me about Amal and other women like her, who are arriving in northeastern Kenya traumatized not only from famine and displacement—but also from being raped along the trek.
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Sexual Violence Rising in Famine-Struck East Africa
Women and girls seeking refuge at displacement camps must walk for days, along the long and dangerous routes to the Somalia-Kenya border. Bandits and Al-Shabaab militia patrol much of southern Somalia and have infiltrated deep into Kenya, often attacking women and their families to steal the few possessions they have. In Amal’s case, they took the only piece of gold jewelry she had ever owned. She had been hoping to trade it for food.
In these attacks, women have been raped. Even once they arrive at the displacement camps in Kenya, they are not safe. They need food and water, but there is not enough to go around. Many are turned away for lack of resources, relegated to the outskirts of the camps. There, local communities are struggling, not only to sustain themselves through drought and famine, but to offer aid to even harder hit famine refugees from Somalia. The women of Womankind Kenya come from these very communities and have long been mobilizing to confront this famine.
Even as refugees fight to survive, the threat of sexual violence persists. Women and girls are especially vulnerable when they venture out in search of firewood for cooking. As more refugees pour into the area, women must walk farther to find wood, putting them at greater risk of rape. In the area of Dadaab, now the biggest refugee camp in the world, violence against women and girls has quadrupled in the past six months.
Grassroots organizations like Womankind Kenya are a lifeline for rape survivors, especially those who have been turned away from the camps. These women are isolated and vulnerable, cut off from the communities of support they might once have had. Womankind Kenya can do more than meet their pressing needs for food and water. They can speak to women in their own language, breaking through their isolation to offer them care and a new source of support to lean on.
We’ve seen this surge in sexual violence after disaster many times before. We saw it after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, after the massive flooding of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In each of these cases and many more, major disasters uproot communities and leave women and girls vulnerable to violence, including rape and sexual assault. In the chaos and loss of social cohesion that routinely follow disaster, women and girls in places as far afield as Somalia, Nicaragua or the United States are rendered more vulnerable to sexual attack.
To combat this rise in sexual violence, MADRE partners with local women’s organizations around the world that know well the gender-specific threats women and girls face after conflict and disaster – organizations like Womankind Kenya.
Now, Hubbie explained to me, Womankind Kenya is working to fill the gap in access to counseling services and medical care for rape survivors. MADRE is working with them to set up a mobile clinic to bring essential services to refugee women and their families. They will collaborate with local doctors and nurses, who they have worked with before, to reach out to women who need care. They will help women overcome fear of stigma by offering counseling and medical services that respect women’s privacy, and they will help women find their path to recovery.
When the women of Womankind Kenya reached out to Amal, she had all but given up hope. She had just arrived and was living at the edge of a camp. She had nothing, after having been robbed by her attackers. Womankind Kenya gave her emergency food and water, and what’s more, they listened to her story. It was only a first step but an essential one—for Amal and all of the refugee women and girls traumatized by rape.
*Not her real name