A safe haven is often what is needed

Achuei is a 26 year-old Sudanese woman. She left Sudan in 1992, after her home was attacked and she became separated from the rest of her family. She was brought to Kakuma refugee camp, northern Kenya, where she started primary school. However, in 1993 her father arrived in Kakuma from Sudan. He stopped her from attending school and the following year, when she was 14 years old, he forced her to marry a man against her will. When she refused, the young man took her and nearly beat her to death; he later raped her in front of his relatives.

Achuei was taken back to Sudan, and her first child was born in 1995, but died in 1996. Achuei escaped back to Kakuma in 1996, and remained there peacefully until 1998, when her husband came from Sudan and abducted her. She became pregnant again, and, because she was very sick, a doctor helped her to reach Lokkichoggio, from where she came back to Kakuma. In December 1998 she delivered her second baby, a girl.

On two more occasions her husband came back to the camp to take her and the child, but both times Achuei managed to hide from him. When Achuei heard in 2005 that he had come again, and had given money to her relatives to deliver her and the child to him, she ran to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) gender office. She explained her situation, and the LWF gender staff referred her to the JRS Safe Haven. That was in September 2005, and she has been there since.

Achuei’s case illustrates many of the problems related to sexual and gender based violence in Kakuma. Despite there being many nationalities in the camp (mainly Sudanese but also Somali, Ethiopian, Burundian, Rwandese, Congolese) the experiences of those who come to the Safe Haven tend to be similar. It is frequently members of a woman’s own family who cause the insecurity. They usually wish to abduct the women or their children, force them to get married against their will, physically assault them or even kill them. For the Sudanese, the issue of dowry is crucial, with a family sometimes forcing young girls to marry against their will, because the man involved is able to pay a big dowry.

Agencies such as the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and LWF have units which try to negotiate with families and communities to protect those who are experiencing such abuse, but in some cases it is not possible to reach an agreement quickly, or to ensure the person’s safety. In these cases, the woman and her children can be referred to the JRS Safe Haven while a solution is found. The Safe Haven provides temporary secure accommodation for up to 40 women and children at a time. During their stay, they are not only protected, but receive counselling and emotional support from JRS staff and each other. By the time they leave the Safe Haven they are visibly more confident, assertive and hopeful.

The main difficulty is in finding durable solutions to the problems of those who stay in the Safe Haven. Refugees should be discharged within six weeks, but in many cases, such as that of Achuei, this is not possible. Achuei cannot return to her community in Kakuma because her husband is likely to abduct her and/ or the child. Although Sudanese refugees are now being encouraged to return home there are many, like Achuei, whose safety would be threatened if they did. The end to war does not necessarily mean that individuals are able to live in peace, and there is good reason to believe that many of these women would continue to be abused and assaulted if they returned to Sudan, where members of their families or their husbands’ families would easily find them.

Achuei said that recently a friend of her husband’s came to her in the Safe Haven and offered a lot of money if she would return to Sudan. He pointed out to her that she had not got any money, and that JRS would not be there forever, so she should go back with him to Sudan where she would have a lot of money. But she refused. “If I went to Sudan I would be killed and my daughter taken”, she said.

When there is no possibility of living safely in the refugee camp, and no possibility of returning home safely, thoughts turn to resettlement in a third country. There are, of course, many problems with resettling people in western countries, but in cases such as that of Achuei, it is difficult to identify any alternative solution.

Rebecca Horn, Coordinating Counsellor, Kakuma refugee camp

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