A Crisis with a Female Face

See below for a guest post by Sinead Murray from MFAN partner International Rescue Committee on gender-based violence in the Horn of Africa crisis. The post originally appeared on ONE’s blog.

Dadaab, Kenya — On the outskirts of Hagadera, a refugee camp near the town of Dadaab, Somali women and their families are gathered, desperately seeking assistance after fleeing a famine and the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa region in six decades.

I have been working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) here for nearly a year. Looking around this arid, desolate corner of northwestern Kenya — barely 50 miles from the Somali border — it is hard to imagine that this is where more than 1,000 people a day come to look for help.

Newly arriving refugees from Somalia are housed in the outskirts of Dadaab. Photo credit: Edward Macharia/ IRC.

Famine has gripped headlines in recent weeks. Yet the story you might not have heard is what I consider the hidden side of this crisis –- violence against women and girls.

Two weeks ago, I sat in a thatch-roofed hut outside Hagadera speaking with a group of Somali women who had just crossed one of the most dangerous borders in the world. Their stories were alarming and disturbingly similar: Women and girls were taken from overcrowded vehicles, then robbed and raped by men with guns. Many were raped by multiple attackers, sometimes in front of their own families. Some “came to the camp naked,” one woman confided.

Each day, my IRC colleagues see a growing number of women and girls seeking help for the attacks they encountered on the road. But there are many more that don’t come forward, either out of shame and fear –- or simply because by the time they reach Dadaab, they are so exhausted and hungry that what happened to them along the way is one of many urgent concerns.

Sadly, Dadaab has not proven to be the safe haven that many women and girls had hoped for. The camps here are buckling under the pressure of a steadily increasing stream of refugees. New arrivals must wait on the outskirts, where aid agencies are trying to stretch their limited funding to meet the enormous needs all around. The result is that Dadaab simply isn’t safe for women and girls. They must walk far to get firewood and water, risking attack just to cook food for their families.

While the famine has been portrayed as a natural disaster, this crisis is not so simple. There is a complex web of conflict and insecurity in the region that has not only subjected millions of people to hunger and disease, but also to violence. And women and girls are facing the biggest risks.

This crisis couldn’t have hit at a worse time. As Congress spent the summer trying to make deeper cuts in spending, there is little funding available to go to an emergency like this. This is unfortunate because we know that with the right attention and resources, easy solutions can be put in place. Aid groups like the IRC can scale up services that help survivors recover and heal. We can construct more water points and latrines so that women and girls don’t need to risk attack in the forest. We can create safe spaces so that women and girls have a place to go for assistance and support.

The United States has been a leader in investing in women and girls, stating loudly and clearly that their needs are of primary importance to our country’s development and security goals. If there is one place where such leadership is needed today, it is in the Horn of Africa. Somali women and girls are counting on it.

For more information about the International Rescue Committee’s work in the Horn of Africa go to our Famine and Drought in the Horn website.

Sinead Murray is the International Rescue Committee’s gender-based violence program manager based in Dadaab, Kenya.


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