Kenya: Group counselling for single mothers started
18 April 2011

During their first group counselling session, the Congolese women bonded so much that they left the JRS compound as a group. (Amanda Crabe/JRS)
The numbers of women arriving from DRC has risen recently and many of them have been sexually abused before fleeing to Kenya.
Kakuma, 18 April 2011  Single refugee mothers can now receive group counselling in Kakuma refugee camp, after JRS launched the second part of a new pilot programme. 

Since the beginning of March, group counselling is taking place in three JRS–run centres within the camp, targeting 51 mothers from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

"We carried out a needs assessment which showed that refugees in Kakuma suffer from a variety of psychological problems caused by different factors. This confirms the need for a broad approach to counselling including individual as well as family and group counselling, rather than a narrow focus on one specialised area, such as trauma counselling," says Bernhard Kahuku, who coordinates the JRS Counselling Programme.

High demand

To begin with, JRS decided to focus on Somali and Congolese women. The numbers of women arriving from DRC has risen recently and many of them have been sexually abused before fleeing to Kenya. Many Somali single mothers who arrive to Kakuma are widowed because their husbands lost their lives in Somalia. To cope with their grievance and trauma, both groups need a multi-systemic approach. 

"The demand was so high that we had to create more groups than originally intended," says Mr. Kahuku. 

The women will meet weekly, with a facilitator and an assistant facilitator recruited and trained from among the refugees present at each meeting. However, the group members will conduct the meetings and decide the norms and meeting topics. The facilitators' presence enables the group to stay on track and facilitate the communication and maintenance of the norms. 

Offering emotional instead of material support

"The purpose is for the women to find their power and encourage lasting support relationships that outlive the three month group meetings," explains Mr. Kahuku.

At the first meeting, some of the mothers expected material support and were disappointed to hear that this was not the case. The group facilitators had to explain that the purpose of the group counselling was instead to give support in struggles that are not solved materialistically.  

The women then discussed common struggles and conditions that brought the group closer and the atmosphere changed from confusion to a better understanding. One mother who initially was very opposed to the idea of not receiving material support eventually liked the idea of emotional support so much that she shared her painful story with the other participants. 

The group also agreed on norms such as empathy, love, commitment, respect and confidentiality. By the end of the first meeting the women had bonded so much that they left as a group. 

One month after the programme was launched, demand remains high. Mothers who are not single parents also expressed their interest. "We feel that we too could benefit from the powerful bond of trust and empowerment we saw was coming from the single mothers' groups," said one of the mothers. 

More groups to come

"We are in the process of planning to address mothers of other nationalities and looking to overcome obstacles such as language barriers and cultural differences," says Mr. Kahuku. "Our aim is to make group counselling accessible to more mothers by developing more groups in the three centres and in the community directly," he added. 

While forming counselling groups according to nationalities greatly diminishes many of the obstacles, groups with mixed nationalities have the benefit of challenging tribalistic attitudes and creating strong ties across ethnic and national differences.
The counselling programme in Kakuma was started in 1994. It offers basic counselling skills training to 250 refugees per year and community-based counselling services provided by 40 trained refugee staff who reach out to 1,500 refugees per year. The programme also offers basic training in alternative healing methods to 100 refugees per year and provides massage and reflexology through 20 alternative healers.

Kakuma refugee camp was established in 1992 for Sudanese refugees who were fleeing the civil war in Sudan. It now hosts more than 80,000 refugees of whom at least 39,000 are Somalis.

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Angelika Mendes
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