A group of women outside the JRS Safe Haven facility in Kakuma. (Katie Allan/JRS)
Kakuma, 13 March 2013 – Bridging the gender gap and protecting women and children are priorities for most, if not all, NGOs and UN agencies in the camp. Year after year, campaigns are organised to raise awareness of the plight of women, and education and training courses seek to strengthen the position of women. Concerted efforts are made to ensure the many cases reported receive public attention and the perpetrators punished for their crimes.

Yet despite the increasing camp population, 20 percent in 2012, reaching 110,000 and with further increases expected in 2013, available resources are being stretched to the limit, and tensions in and among refugee families and communities frequently reach breaking point.

With the increase in the camp population, the need for protection for survivors and those at risk has grown substantially, particularly for children. The huge increase in the number of vulnerable girls in need of protection from forced marriage and child abduction means that more resources are needed to cater their needs away from those who condone the practices. Most of these girls end up with little or no access to education.

Small steps. With all this it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Yet there is also a quiet revolution taking place. Women are protected in the JRS Safe Haven; NGOs, like JRS, provide courses to help women find jobs and lend them resources to start businesses. Although it often seems like a drop in the ocean, many lives of women and their children are saved and situations changed for the better.

Yet, for others, sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to be an everyday occurrence, with hundreds of cases reported every year; the situation got so bad that in 2012 JRS dramatically increased the numbers of women-headed families in its Safe Haven facility to serve 105 survivor women and children, offering them important counselling services. Moreover, participants are also offered courses in the adult education programme, tailoring, and a pre-school for the children.

The Safe Haven is a highly protected facility where SGBV survivors and persons with protection risks are admitted to heal from the trauma they may have suffered at the hands of the perpetrators. Further, during this time, durable solutions are sought to ensure that they are not exposed to the same risks again. Moreover, in 2012 JRS provided scholarships to 73 girls at risk of SGBV to pursue their education, away from the rampant violence in the camp, in Kenyan schools where they are able to study in a safer environment.

"My uncles wanted to marry me off to a very rich old man…. JRS then gave me a scholarship, protection, food and clothing. Now I know my rights and will not allow anybody to take away what belongs to me. I've taken several [vocational] courses and I know I'll get a good job when I get resettled [in another country]", said Elizabeth*, recipient of JRS protection services, vocational training courses and scholarship for vulnerable girls in Kakuma refugee camp.

Some refugee women are also able to give back to others after they receive assistance.

After Agnes* defied the wishes of her relatives by marrying a man from another ethnic group, they tried to kill her husband. Aware of her right to make choices, Agnes reported the matter to the police. Afterwards, JRS sponsored her education and training, and later hired her as a community counsellor.

"This has helped me to build self-awareness and develop healthy coping mechanisms, including helping others facing similar situations", she said.

But there are many women in the camp who lack a basic education, who are unable to read and write in the languages used in Kenya. Not only does this prevent women from being autonomous in everyday life, as Jane* found out it can also have other consequences.

After her husband beat her for the umpteenth time and tried to prevent her from seeing her children, she tried to report him.

Due to her inability to speak in English or Kiswahili, she faced serious difficulties reporting him at the police station. These problems continued right through to the court process. Although Jane was not deterred, for too many other women, these obstacles would have been too much.

Eventually Jane was offered protection in the JRS Safe Haven where she enrolled in adult literacy education and tailoring classes. Now she is able to communicate effectively in both Kiswahili and English. Her case was referred to court where she raised her complaints and was granted custody of her children. 

"Learning wasn't easy for me but I managed", Jane said with a smile of satisfaction.

Insufficient. But small steps are not enough to protect women in Kakuma camp who are frequently put at risk of SGBV when carrying out the simplest daily activities, such as collecting firewood, going to food distribution centres, hospital, or schools.

More needs to be done to address the complex cultural, economic and political causes.While international and regional laws assert refugee rights and protection, the reality is far removed from these legal concepts. Patriarchal cultural practices have obstructed gender equality and especially empowerment of women in Kakuma; the socioeconomic deprivation of protracted crisis in isolated camps where the rule of law is far from guaranteed.

The legal obligations of the Kenyan state and the international community have been undermined by a lack of political will. It is only through this political will, and solid investment, which prioritises the well-being of refugees, can real strides towards the reduction of sexual violence be expected.

Alex Kiptanui, Kakuma Project Director and Caro Jeptoo, Safe Haven Coordinator, JRS Kenya

*Names have been changed to protect their identities