HORN OF AFRICA: Refugees Confront Trauma and Sexual Violence

Thursday, September 15, 2011
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

In the heartache and confusion that accompany the flight from drought and hunger, refugees from Somalia can now turn to a source of comfort with a familiar face: fellow refugees who have been specially trained to help survivors of trauma, loss, sexual and gender-based violence. They're part of a unique CARE program that focuses on strengthening community coping mechanisms.

At the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, CARE employs a team of 18 outreach workers and paracounselors, recruited from among the refugees and offered comprehensive training in counseling and community development. They speak the language and share the culture of fellow refugees. More than any outsider, they can understand the terrible trials, including sexual violence, deaths of family members, and loss of homes and livelihoods, that refugees have experienced.

The CARE team first ensures that the most vulnerable refugees are made safe, and provides immediate distributions of food and family essentials, orientation on available services, and referrals for medical attention if needed. Survivors of violence or other special cases are “fast-tracked” for registration and access to a full range of assistance. Women at risk of domestic abuse can take temporary refuge in safe havens hosted by established refugees. CARE strives to support community-based solutions and facilitate refugees to help each other.

“Whenever people are uprooted from their communities and support networks, there's an increased risk of violence, sexual assault and domestic abuse,” said Jasveen Ahluwalia, CARE Emergency Gender Adviser. “Our first priority is to prevent further incidents of violence, and the best way to do that is to promote community cohesion and mutual support.” One measure CARE and our partners take is to facilitate the settlement of new arrivals whenever possible in groups who were previously neighbors, rather than among strangers.

Those in need of emotional support have access to CARE's trained counselors, who take special care to protect the privacy of sexual violence survivors. “All of our services are provided within the context of CARE's larger programming, including community development work, livelihoods, youth and adolescent activities, sports and HIV prevention,” said Ahluwallia. “That way people coming for help won't be singled out and potentially stigmatized.”

Nearly 4,700 refugees have come to CARE for counseling and support in just over three months – 1,111 in the week of Aug. 28-Sept. 3 alone.

“If we can access the necessary funds, we can hire more outreach workers, especially women,” said Ahluwalia. “Most refugees are strong, resilient people – they just need a hand to help, and an ear to listen, and they will rebuild the bonds that keep a community safe.”