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Social Injustice: Women In Dadaab Refugee Camp


Women living in Dadaab refugee camp bear the greatest brunt of inequality with regards to gender, sexuality, justice and representation.

Accounting for 90 % of the total population, Somalis in Dadaab - the largest refugee camp in the world with a population that almost equals that of Eritrea ‘with 485,000 individuals- have the highest rates of inequality towards women.

Being the majority household heads in Dadaab, women bear the pangs of inequality as they fight to survive against all odds owing to their statuses as being refugees to provide food and other basic needs to the families.

According to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) women in the camp encounter gender-based violence and systematic discrimination as they try to access humanitarian aid.

“Women in the camp have to put up with rape, domestic violence/ Gender Based Violence, harmful traditional practices, lack of capacity building, lack of participation, exclusion from leadership and information sharing,” said the report.


Everyday 10 cases of rape are reported and documented at Gender offices in the camp. Many cases still go unreported due to fear of victimization and stigma. More often young children are molested after being coerced by strangers and even relatives in some cases.

On the other hand, widows who live alone face a greater threat of being raped daily owing to the high insecurity at the camp. During the day, they are targeted while fetching water from the tap stands especially when they are alone. The tap stands are located meters away from their homes.

At night as ordinary world goes to sleep in secure surroundings, their worst nightmare begins when vigilantes, bandits and thieves make it a routine by visiting them violently and uninvited.

They often leave a trail of destruction, injury of even death depending on the level of resistance shown by the women.

Women are cornered and dishonored while going to answer the call of nature outside in the middle of the night.

Zara *not her real name* a victim said the perpetrators who are usually armed with crude weapons threaten to kill if they resisted or even thought of shouting.

Lack of awareness, poor lighting in the camp, poor capacity building, lack of a proper complaint and response mechanism and poor security are all factors that aggravate the situation.  

Domestic violence and Gender Based Violence

In Dadaab camp, domestic violence which is always characterized by battering, physical, sexual, psychological, and economic abuses. It is also characterized by long-term patterns of abusive behavior and lack of self control.

In a camp where women are considered as inferior beings based on cultural aspects and traits, cases concerning domestic violence are high and most of the go unreported or resolved through elders and religious leaders. ( Maslaha courts)

Gender based violence which is often directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex - mostly women – is always characterized by frequent acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering.

Most victims in the camp have literary broken down mentally as a result of psychological abuse, forced prostitution, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, and harmful traditional practices.

Harmful traditional practices

According to International Rescue Committee (IRC), 30 young girls undergo female genital mutilation every month in the camp.

 These cases often turn out for the worst because most of the victims often develop short term effects like death due to over bleeding, physical injury and long-term effects such as fistula, barrenness, miscarriages and immature pregnancies.

Mostly, the girls are forced to undergo the rite or sometimes bow in due to peer pressure and influence despite having information concerning the effects that come with the practice and use of inappropriate tools for the procedure.  

Amina * Not her real name* said most of the young girls want to have a social standing in the society, they want to be respected and considered as adults ready for marriage therefore opting  to go through the illegal procedure.

Forced marriage also takes its toll in the camp.  With a population consisting of young people, girls as young as 13 years are married off forcefully in order to claim bride price among other factors. This is mostly supported based on cultural values, something which the Somali people adhere to prestigiously.  

Other harmful practices also demean the status of women in the camp include polygamy and widow cleansing. These factors have a high reputation of enhancing the spread of HIV/AIDS apart from venereal diseases.

Lack of capacity building and participation

Having facilitated many sessions and trainings on capacity building in Dadaab camp, I found out that women were not fully participating in formulation of ideas and policies because of poor motivation and morale.

Despite organizing seminars and workshops for capacity building, poor attendance was recorded when many women cited different reasons not to attend the sessions such as domestic chores, shyness, assumption that women are supposed to “stay in the kitchen” and most significantly, illiteracy.

Lack of capacity building primarily leads to lack of awareness, thus many women in the camp do not know their rights. This creates a knowledge gap between men and women especially when it is made complex due to illiteracy and unsocial cultural traits.

Exclusion from leadership

When the time for casting the ballot sets in, the numbers of women vying for positions in leadership are only a handful at any given year. This emanates from the negative attitude towards the status of women in the society.

Women are viewed as weak hence cannot sustain leadership and governance in the refugee setting. Apart from that, the fear of being targeted by militants and bandits in case one clinches a leadership position is never taken for granted.

Having worked in the area, leaders fall victim to kidnapping and tortured to give information apart from being targeted then murdered after being labeled as agents colluding with the police. These underlying issues have created fear in women against vying for leadership positions.

On the other hand, women serving as elected leaders often undergo a myriad of challenges. According to a report by UN Women, ladies in leadership position have immense pressure to deliver and showcase everyday that they can do better than men. They defy all odds including stigma, stereotyping and marginalization in order to deliver.

In Dadaab camps, women leaders are challenged day by day with cases they cannot solve by themselves alone thus rendering questions on their credibility as leaders.

A talk with the Chairlady for Hagadera camp revealed a plight of accusations such as favoritism, tribalism and corruption, especially when she had to make decisions that did not render well with the rest.

Inadequate support from law enforcers and humanitarian agencies only makes it hard for women to accept leadership position in the camp.


Information sharing

Women are not allowed to own radios or worse listen to them according to the Somali culture. In turn, they are left out when it comes to getting information especially that which is laden with awareness issues.

Most refugees do not have access to mobile phones due to registration issues and the cost of affording the devices. Therefore, the number of women who own mobile phones is still low to allow information sharing in the camp. Men on the other hand who have a high number of mobile phones discriminate thus widening the gap when it comes to sharing information.

Victims of female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, assault and other injustices are often left lingering in the dark due to poor information sharing. This is mainly two- fold:

a)      Lack of feedback on pending issues and complaints which makes it hard for women to find trust and confidence in reporting cases and sharing information concerning inequality with respective offices and persons.

b)      Lack of action by agencies due to underlying issues despite having reported cases concerning inequality and discrimination

Strengthening information sharing in the refugee setting is crucial especially when looking at mitigating contentious issues that arise from misinformation and lack of awareness.

Humanitarian agencies have not sufficiently taken steps in strengthening information/ communication departments due to reasons based on funding.

When information is strengthened and sustainable channels of feedback are put in place, women will be a step closer to be free from unworthy discrimination, inequality and misrepresentation in the camp.

Recently, UN Women signed an agreement between cities and local governments at a conference in Paris to better track female leadership and participation at the local level.

This will instill a system that will encompass collection of data on local female leadership, monitor local action plans on gender equality and create a global observatory.

During the International Women's Day 2013, UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed that discrimination and violence against women and girls have no place in the 21st century.


“Enough is enough,” she stated.

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