A 13-year-old Sudanese girl, separated from her family, was raped last week in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Earlier this month in a Sudanese camp, a group of Eritrean women were kidnapped and tortured. At resettlement camps in the Benue State, a region of Nigeria, rapes have “become daily occurrences.”
For female refugees around the globe, rape is not only a cause for flight from their homes, but it is also becoming a consequence. After fleeing the trauma of war, millions of women reach the so-called “safe haven” of refugee camps only to be thrust into a dangerous world of sexual harassment, rapes and kidnappings. Already flooded with traumatic memories, many women must face new waves of trauma in the camps.
One woman, forced from her home by floods, and gang-raped in the Benue camp, says, “I am not the only one they have done this to, there are so many other girls; there are over 19 of us that have been raped in the last few days, but we are all hiding it because of the shame…we will not get help because we are helpless.”
80 percent of the world’s 42 million refugees are women. They must forage alone for food and firewood far from the camps, and trek long distances to washing areas. They often sleep in unprotected tents or under trees alongside male strangers. Everyday, female refugees risk their lives for their basic needs. Night patrol is rare, and women, wandering in complete darkness, can become moving targets for armed groups, male refugees or even camp guards.
The increased domestic abuse rates in refugee camps show that husbands, too, can double as dangerous perpetrators. Since so many cases go unreported, the number of victims is difficult to determine, but according to one British report, half of all female asylum seekers in the UK have been raped.
Although the sexual assaults defy reason, some speculate such attacks may result from deep-rooted tensions between the refugee and host communities. Hosts, often already impoverished, resent refugees, who strain local resources, intrude on land and receive exclusive aid from humanitarian organizations. Local men, threatened by the refugees’ intrusion on their homeland, may attack women in the camp to assert their authority. A Kenyan police officer said, “They rape our environment, and, you know, they get raped.” Sexual violence — a weapon of war — is also used to destabilize and terrorize refugee populations.
Inside the camp, the psychological strains of refugee life incite gender violence. Male refugees who were once productive members of society must depend on aid agencies for survival, and often channel their feelings of disempowerment into aggression.
Wouldn’t you think that those who have sacrificed everything to escape their national wars might be spared the global war on women?
Photo credit: Nicolas Rost