Helping refugees vulnerable to violence

9 November 2015
Nyang Kueth deng (left) and gender-based violence (GBV) colleagues at Jewi refugee camp. © UNFPA / Ayenew Haileselassie

JEWI REFUGEE CAMP, Gambella Regional State, Ethiopia – Two years ago Mayntap Dong, 35, and the people of her neighbourhood fled the fighting in Malakal in Upper Nile state of South Sudan and began a hazardous journey into Ethiopia. Already mourning the loss of her seven-year-old son who had died of a gunshot wound, she could not then know what violence she – and many other women and girl refugees – had yet to face.

Nyakong Paul, 17, a refugee and community agent based at Jewi refugee camp, Ethiopia. © UNFPA / Ayenew Haileselassie

The long and difficult trip to her first place of refuge, Leitchuor camp, claimed the lives of around a hundred people, many of who had been wounded in the fighting.

Then after several months she was relocated to the newly established Jewi refugee camp, home to more than 48,600 refugees and asylum seekers (UNHCR, 30 Oct 2015) about 18 kilometres from Gambella town, the capital of Ethiopia’s Gambella Regional State.

The refugees housed here no longer risk being shot but another threat faces them. Divided into four zones, it is the most remote camps where the most danger lurks – particularly for women and girls.

New threat for women and girls

Physical abuse and gender-based violence (GBV), including that of a sexual nature, are common in the refugee camps. Girls and women are vulnerable when travelling alone, especially across isolated areas between refugee camps. They become particularly vulnerable when collecting firewood to cook food or when they stay out late, according to Martha Thiyang, International Medical Corps (IMC) GBV officer at Tierkidi camp.

The men drink on credit and they need the ration cards to pay for this. Then they fight with their wives. - NyangKueth Deng, GBV community mobilizer, Jewi

In Tierkidi, which houses more than 52,000 refugees, domestic violence is the most commonly reported form of gender-based violence. Women report incidents to Martha on a daily basis – but the majority of women choose to keep quiet, she said.

This applies in Jewi too. “The victims are always women,” said NyangKueth Deng, a GBV community mobilizer in Jewii. “The men drink on credit and they need the ration cards to pay for this. Then they fight with their wives.”

Supporting sexual and reproductive health

Despite the signing of a Peace Agreement in South Sudan in August 2015, reports of violence have continued in over 20 locations in southern and central Unity State. In Leer and Koch Counties humanitarian operations were suspended in October 2015, leaving around 250,000 people without humanitarian assistance. Reports of the killing of 80 civilians in Leer County, including 57 children (more than half of whom drowned while attempting to flee attacks), were received in October, as well as of widespread sexual violence (UNHCR).

IMC, which runs a UNFPA-supported project on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV), is active in the camps. It has separate facilities at the same site for SRH and GBV as well as mental health, its third area of support.

Through the UNFPA-assisted project, IMC has recruited and deployed SRH and GBV officers, who supervise locally recruited community mobilizers in the refugee camps.

Women-friendly spaces have been set up in the camps for various activities. At Jewi, Tierkidi and Kule refugee camps, IMC is building adolescent and youth-friendly centres, with the support of UNFPA.

I tell young people to use family planning and travel with condoms to give to them. – Nyakong Paul, 17, Jewi refugee camp

Training refugees to empower others

Nyakong Paul (right) and a fellow community agent, Jewi refugee camp. © UNFPA Ayenew Haileselassie
The SRH and GBV officers recruited community agents from among the refugees and provided four days’ training. These agents inform the refugees about services available to them and the importance of using them: “I tell young people to use family planning, including condoms, when they decide to become sexually active. I travel with condoms in my bag to give to them,” said Nyakong Paul, 17, based at Jewii.

She and other agents like her target adolescents and women of child-bearing age. Their messages are related to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, family planning methods and ANC services, to promote institutional delivery, and immunization. If they encounter anyone needing these services, they give them a referral slip to take to the health facilities run by Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) France or the Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA).

Aiding victims of sexual violence

Their GBV work is assisted by the shurta (community police), who handle incidents of gender-based violence. There are 120 shurta based in Jewi alone.

“If a woman is raped, she will get immediate medical care, psychosocial support and legal counselling; we also advise her not to isolate herself,” said Ms. Thiyang.

Girls are becoming bold enough to say ‘no’ to early marriage. - Martha Thiyang, International Medical Corps (IMC) GBV officer, Tierkidi

These interventions are making an impact. At Tierkidi, community mobilizer referrals to the ARRA health centre for SRH services totalled 102 in June, 133 in July and 144 in the first three weeks of August 2015.

At Jewi, refugees are beginning to come forward for family planning services – for condoms, pills or three-month injectables – or treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Girls are also becoming bold enough to say ‘no’ to early marriage, Ms. Thiyang said, and some of the fathers are even beginning to accept that. Meanwhile, reported cases of sexual violence are reducing.

Domestic violence remains a bigger challenge. “We are going door to door teaching them to avoid it,” NyangKueth Deng said. “We teach them to talk, to agree and to convince each other.”

And the women-friendly space that Martha supervises is fast becoming a favourite hang-out for women. She sees as many as 300 women at the centre each week. They have an opportunity to chat in a safe space and sing as they crochet – simple activities in normal circumstances but here, highly valued.

By Ayenew Haileselassie