The supposed sanctuary of Kenyan refugee camps can't protect Somali women from the horrors of a growing rape epidemic.
The three refugee camp sites built by the Kenyan government at Dadaab in northern Kenya were originally planned to house 90,000 people. However, a daily influx of over 1,400 Somalis escaping tremendous famine and sectarian violence has swelled the population to beyond 400,000 and helped contribute to a horrifying escalation in sexual assaults on Somali women and girls.
Specifically, the congested and undersupplied confines of Dadaab's refugee camps have forced the newly arrived Somali women further from the safety of camp centers. Consequently, they have to make long treks for needed supplies and are thus prone to attacks from men hiding in the bushes along the isolated trails.
According to UN reports, there were 358 incidents of rape in Dadaab from January 2011 to June 2011, up from 75 during the same period in 2010. Unfortunately, those numbers are probably much higher, given the cultural stigma Somalis attach to victims of sexual violence, one where women live in fear of being ostracized by their families and communities.
The tragedy of it all is that these same women have been subjected to ongoing sexual assault from the onset of their journey from Somalia into Kenya. As one UN official said, many of them tell harrowing tales of being raped by militants of Somalia's Islamist terror group al-Shabab, only to “cross the border on the way to the camps to Dadaab and be attacked and raped by bandits.”
While some assailants have been Kenyan gang members, other attackers appear to be Somali militiamen in the employ of Kenya's government. These militiamen, hired to guard the Somali-Kenya border against al-Shabab, apparently are paid so infrequently, if at all, that they either sell their weapons for food or prey on refugees.
In one recently disturbing, but all too common, incident, militiamen from the Jubaland militia gang raped a 13-year old girl and her two sisters for two days before letting them go.
Unfortunately, Somali women and their daughters remain highly vulnerable to sexual assault of this kind from these and other marauders because they constitute the overwhelming majority of the Somali refugee stream. This disconcerting fact is a result of al-Shabab's having killed either most of the males fleeing Somalia or having captured them to become recruits in its fight against the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
While the brutality of al-Shabab is well known and has been applied to both men and women, its assault on women has been even more devastating. A few examples of al-Shabab barbarity include charging young girls with adultery who refuse to enter into forced marriages and then stoning them to death, as well as beating or stoning to death girls and women accused of being raped.
As one UN worker said about life for women and girls under al-Shabab control, if they object to their treatment, “they're basically killed just like their fathers were, so people are basically living in a state of complete terror.” So, now, having made the dangerous trek from Somalia into the supposed safety of Kenya, the reality remains that their nightmarish life continues on unabated.
Yet, to be honest, life for women in Somali refugee camps is just as harsh, if not more so, as life in a Kenyan refugee camp. For example, over a period of six months in 2010, the Somali refugee camp at Galkayo alone documented over 400 cases of rape.
Still, the Kenyan government has an established history of being unwelcoming to Somali refugees, and to women in particular. A 2010 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documented that nearly 80 percent of Somali women and girls face “rape, whippings, beatings, detention, extortion, and summary deportation” at the hands of Kenyan police.
According to Gerry Simpson of HRW, “Once in the camps, some refugees face more police violence and the police turn a blind eye to sexual violence by other refugees and local Kenyans.”
Moreover, despite recently receiving $21 billion from the European Union to address the challenge of housing the large influx of Somali refugees, the Kenyan government hasn't helped to alleviate the miserable conditions in its own camps.
Specifically, Kenya, aided with $16 million in donations from the United States and the European Union, recently built a new refugee camp near Dadaab designed to hold 40,000 people. However, the If2 refugee camp stands unused, as the Kenyan government has refused to allow it to be open for business for fear the new accommodations will only serve to entice more Somalis to come to Kenya, making it harder to get them to return home.
Yet, for many Somalis, Kenya is indeed considered home, a fact Kenyan officials are quick to point out. They say the camp sites at Dadaab were originally built in 1991 to house Somalis fleeing the onset of Somalia's civil war, but nearly twenty years of continuous warfare have turned many of the camps' occupants into semi-permanent residents.
So, in an attempt to rid itself of its burgeoning Somali refugee problem, Kenya is now hoping to move them back from whence they first came. To that end, Kenya's Minister of Internal Security, Francis Kimemia, has argued that the construction of any new refugee camps be completed within Somalia.
Kimemia has asked the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to establish a safe zone near the Kenyan border with Somalia for the provision of relief supplies, arguing, “Instead of urging us to extend camps within Kenya, isn't it possible to start camps inside Somalia just close to the border… and Somalis can be settled there?”
To Kenyan authorities, the reasoning behind moving Somalis out of Kenya has little to do with any perceived lack of humanitarian feeling, but more to do with Kenya's national security and the risk posed by large masses of displaced Somalis.
In particular, the government fears al-Shabab will infiltrate the refugee camps and wreak havoc, a view underscored by a recent UN report that cites al-Shabab's extensive funding, recruiting and training networks in Kenya. As Kenya's interior minister, Orwa Ojode, has said of an al-Shabab presence in Kenya, “We are not ready to have that kind of insecurity…That is our biggest fear.”
Tragically, for Somalia's increasingly desperate and abused women and girls, insecurity and fear remain constant, unending afflictions.