Giving hope to survivors of violence

7 October 2015
A young woman narrates her experiences as a refugee fleeing the conflict in South Sudan, at Kakuma refugee camp. © UNFPA Bernard Muthaka

KAKUMA, Kenya – Every once in a while, Joyce Dabor is jolted from sleep by memories of the day she was separated from her children. It was the day they finally escaped the bloody conflict in South Sudan.

Ms. Dabor was pregnant at the time, and a widow – her husband had been killed in the conflict. As her family was being evacuated to Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, she lost sight of her two children. It would be days before she saw them again.

Haunted by memories of the conflict

“I have slowly forgotten the pain brought by the war.” - Joyce Dabor, refugee

The family was eventually reunited by the International Rescue Committee. But the horrors of war continued to haunt Ms. Dabor. Even now, she shares a bed with her children, fearing they might disappear again.

She began to attend group therapy sessions held under a large tree in the camp. Often, the unforgiving sandstorms would force them to abandon the sessions and take cover.

Today, the shade of the tree has been replaced by the Kakuma Support Centre, built and operated wtih UNFPA assistance. In addition to group therapy, the centre offers lessons in income-generating skills such as baking, embroidery, tailoring, crocheting and gardening. Women also learn about their rights, and can and do receive reproductive health care – including antenatal check-ups and family planning counselling. Special services are also available for survivors of gender-based violence.

South Sudanese refugees inside a knitting classroom at Kakuma Refugee Centre. © UNFPA / Bernard Muthaka

Ms. Dabor has been taking the centre’s embroidery classes. “I get the material and training from this centre,” she told UNFPA. “I sell the pieces at the market. This way, I am able to buy fresh vegetables and fruit for my family.”

She says she is recovering from the stresses of war, and her handicraft skills are improving. Her latest project is a table mat embroidered with two white doves, each carrying a leaf in its beak.

“I have slowly forgotten the pain brought by the war,” she said. 

Making care accessible

A South Sudanese refugee takes knitting lessons at Kakuma Support Centre, which is supported by UNFPA.      © UNFPA / Bernard Muthaka

Since the South Sudanese conflict began in 2013, there has been a steady influx of refugees in the area. Initially, most temporary shelters were located far from clinics and hospitals. Women routinely walked 5 to 10 kilometres in searing heat to obtain basic health care or support for survivors of violence.

UNFPA began constructing the centre in January, with support from the Central Emergency Response Fund. The building was completed in May. Now, vulnerable women are able to access psychological care, medical services and livelihood support all in the same location.

“This facility has helped us realize great results here, especially in helping the refugees plan their families and in improving maternal health outcomes,” said UNFPA’s Representative in Kenya, Siddharth Chatterjee. “This year alone, we have had 1,933 births at the hospital in Kakuma, with 97 per cent if these being hospital deliveries. This is higher than the national average.”

According to Julliet Maina, who works for UNFPA in Kakuma, attendance at antenatal check-ups is at 70 per cent, and post-natal care attendance is at 90 per cent – both  higher than the national average.

“Working with the International Rescue Committee, we have also increased the number of professional medical workers at the camp,” Ms. Maina added. “In the first half of 2015, we were able to attend to 146 survivors of gender-based violence.”

Dignity kits an entry point to care

Farming is a resilience development activity that South Sudanese refugees develop at Kakuma Refugee Centre. © UNFPA / Bernard Muthaka

As women leave the support centre, they collect a dignity kit to take home. Each dignity kit contains sanitary napkins, underwear, soap, toothpaste and a bucket. To help the women feel safer navigating the camp at night, the kits also contain a whistle and a flashlight.

Ms. Maina explains that many women come to the support centre just for the dignity kit. Once there, they learn about the other services available.

“Some women used to ridicule me whenever I told them I was going for a meeting under a tree. But now they have seen the benefits of this centre and are always here with me,” she said, smiling.

By Bernard Muthaka