HORN OF AFRICA: On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence

Sunday, September 25, 2011
New York Times
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

IMAGINE that you're a Somali suffering from the drought and famine in that country. One of your children has just starved to death, but there's no time to mourn. Depleted and traumatized, you set off on foot across the desert with your family, and after 15 exhausting days finally reach what you believe is the safe haven of Kenya.

But at the very moment when you think you're secure, you encounter a nightmare broached only in whispers: an epidemic of violence and rape. As Somalis stream across the border into Kenya, at a rate of about 1,000 a day, they are frequently prey to armed bandits who rob men and rape women in the 50-mile stretch before they reach Dadaab, now the world's largest refugee camp.

It is difficult to know how many women are raped because the subject is taboo. But more than half of the newly arrived Somalis I interviewed, mostly with the help of CARE, said they had been attacked by bandits, sometimes in Somalia but very often on Kenyan soil. Some had been attacked two or three times.

In short, this seems like an instance of mass rape — adding one more layer of misery to the world's most desperate humanitarian crisis. The United Nations warns that 750,000 Somalis are at risk of starving to death in the coming months, and it's increasingly clear that those who try to save themselves and their children must endure a gantlet of robbers and rapists.

“There were three places where bandits attacked us,” a 35-year-old mother told me. “The first two times they took money and food. The last time, I had nothing left to give them. So they raped me.” The rape, by three men, occurred inside Kenya.

Another woman, a 20-year-old, said she was raped twice during her journey, first in Somalia and then after she had crossed into Kenya. One time, she said, the rapists left her naked in the desert.

Although Somalian culture sometimes blames a woman for being raped, there seems less of that now, perhaps because so many have been brutalized. The 20-year-old said her husband would not divorce her: “My husband still loves me,” she said simply.

For unmarried women, rapes often involve tearing and physical injuries. That's because Somali girls often undergo an extreme kind of genital cutting, infibulation, that involves slicing off the genitals and sewing up the vagina with a wild thorn.

The bandits, who are virtually all ethnically Somali, seem to fear the Shabab militia on the Somalian side of the border. On the Kenyan side, which is sparsely populated with little police presence, they feel impunity.

Aid groups have begun sending out vehicles to search for refugees near the border, sparing them the final few days of hiking. That has helped, but the vehicles can't rescue everyone.

One obvious solution is to establish reception centers along the border, and then bus refugees to Dadaab. Kenya isn't embracing that idea, however, for fear of an even larger Somali influx.

It would be unfair to beat up on Kenya, for by international standards it has borne its responsibilities and been quite hospitable to Somali refugees. It doesn't turn people away from Dadaab, and so Kenya's third-largest city is now a Somali refugee camp. Yet the fact remains: To avert mass rape and violence, Kenya must permit aid agencies to establish reception centers at the Kenya-Somalia border.

Americans also suffer from compassion fatigue, and that brings me to a final point. In a previous column from Dadaab, I told of a father of eight who had lost two of his children to starvation and feared that he would lose three more. Many readers responded bluntly that when men have eight children, it is pointless to help. Saving Somalis, they say, reflects a soggy sentimentality and runs against a Malthusian constraint of mouths multiplying more rapidly than food.

This view is both repulsive and wrong. I often write about the need for more family planning, but Somalis have eight children partly because they know that several may die. If we help save lives now so that parents can be confident their kids will survive, family size will drop. Likewise, educate girls and they will have fewer children.

That is what has happened around the world: In India, women now average 2.6 births, down from about six in 1950. This pattern is a reason to support family planning and girls' education — not a reason to let children die.

We mustn't turn away from starving children because their mothers had no access to education or contraception. It would be monstrous to allow Somalis to starve to death because they lost the same lottery of birth that all of us won.