OPINION: Together we heal, learn and shine in Kenya’s refugee camps

By Anne Mutavati and Dr. Asha Mohamed

In April 2021, the UN Refugee Agency estimated that there were 518,029 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. 49% of refugees are women but an estimated 76% are women with children.

With women and children comprising the higher percentage in the refugee populace, it is critical to consider their peace and security as well as economic prospects. Empowering this target group also serves as a strategic repatriation fallback to ensure they are armed with skills to generate income for them and their families.

The situation

The county governments of Garissa and Turkana have hosted large numbers of refugees for decades. The Government of Kenya established the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement in Turkana in 2016 to re-orient refugee assistance to improve socio-economic conditions of both refugees and the host community already settled there.

This development was to better prepare the host community to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities in extraction and irrigation-fed agriculture, reduce over-dependence on humanitarian aid, and support the refugees to achieve durable solutions.

Both counties have faced challenges to security, including climate change-induced conflicts, topographical situations and recognized historical inequitable development opportunities. This has over the years caused displacement of communities.

Cultural and economic challenges have posed a disproportionate impact on women and girls, who are more likely to experience restrictions of life skills choices, limiting livelihood opportunities. Moreover, the women and girls are also vulnerable to gender based violence including sexual exploitation and abuse.

Once one becomes a refugee, the social structure of the family is broken, and roles are left to all parties (mothers, fathers and children) to source for income and livelihood opportunities. For example, in Daadab Refugee Complex – which hosts the largest number of refugees in Kenya – women have a heavier burden of firewood collection for domestic use.

Walking for long distances to gather firewood makes them vulnerable to assault and gender based violence.

The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has led to more than a year of increased hardships, but humanitarian organisations have made gains and progress in supporting women. The Kenya Red Cross Society offers comprehensive primary health care services at the Kalobeyei settlement to both the host community and refugee population, including sexual reproductive health services.

In addition, a women’s empowerment center was established in Kalobeyei settlement, through a UN Women partnership with Peace Winds Japan in February 2020.

The multipurpose facility offers vocational training for women and girls, and provides shelter and psycho-social support to survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) – with some of the counseling personnel being Kenya Red Cross Society staff. Annually the center attends to more than 5,400 women and girls.

As we heal and learn let us make the women shine

This year’s World Refugee Day theme is ‘Together we heal, learn and shine,’ prioritizing the primary health care needs of refugees, transforming their lives through education and unlocking their creative potential.

This is another opportunity for humanitarian organisations to pull their technical and financial muscle to explore the capabilities of women refugees who, together with their children, form a large percentage among displaced communities.

Even with the advances made to support women in the refugee camps and host communities, more tailored responses are needed to address the root causes of cultural barriers which hinder them from participating in economic driven initiatives. Simple but significant mentorship programmes need to be permanently introduced across all refugee settlements as asylum seekers continue to trickle into the country.

There is need to give opportunity to women to invest in social networks that enable them to access necessary documentation for jobs and vocational trainings. This will increase the likelihood of their own economic independence, but such gains can only be possible through the collaboration of different stakeholders.

As we look at learning and unlocking the potential of women refugees, there is need to tap into innovative solutions. UN Women has applied this in past projects to focus on ICT training and solutions that look beyond capacity building, such as development of online marketing tools and partnerships with e-commerce companies.

This will help cushion the gendered vulnerability that exists for women refugees by empowering them to use their gained skills to acquire and control resources.

This generation of women and girls can set the pace for future generations and realise an elevated economic and social status by embracing diverse economic skills, and enabled by technology.

Anna Mutavati is the UN Women Country Representative to Kenya and Dr. Asha Mohammed is the Secretary General, Kenya Red Cross Society.

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