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Expert Voices

The Lives of Women in Dadaab

Published March 7, 2016

Sarah Farah is field coordinator for CVT Dadaab.

Not long ago, I was at the UN office in Dadaab, when I saw a young lady of about 16 to 18 years. She told me her name was Hibaq.* She had a child on her back and a two year-old with her as well. So I figured she must have married at age 15, and now she has two children. She didn’t tell me why she was at the office that day, but I know that some girls, primarily those under age 16, seek UN protection from marriages to much older men.

In my work with refugee communities in the camp, I see women like Hibaq and many more who are facing the challenges of camp life, all of which are complicated by their gender. Many of the women have grown up in the camp; they’ve never left or experienced any environment beyond the confines of Dadaab. Because of the situations of war and conflict refugees have fled, a lot of women have lost their husband or he stayed behind, putting them into the role of head of the household – they do all the parenting, and they’re the breadwinners. It’s not the traditional family structure, and their ability to function effectively can be inhibited by expectations of their gender. In addition, many of these women have survived torture, sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV) or domestic violence, and yet they still go on, taking on these additional roles.

When I see young women like Hibaq, I think about the importance of education for girls. This is another challenge for women in the camp. In Dadaab, there is very poor enrollment of girls in schools. The parents in the camps are often afraid to send their daughters to school for fear of sexual abuse. It may seem surprising, but I believe the number one fear for parents of girls in the camps is that their daughters will be sexually assaulted by adults if they go to school.

Their fears are real. Girls sometimes get raped on their way to a shop or if they go down an alley. The parents are extremely fearful of exposing them to this outside environment.

There are also cultural reasons for the low enrollment, and one of those is the practice of child brides. Many parents feel it’s safer to marry off their daughter, believing that her husband and her new role as a married woman will protect her from opportunistic violence. The problem of child brides, sometimes of girls as young as 13 years, is so pervasive, the UN currently has a poster campaign running in Dadaab to try to counteract this cultural practice.

In addition, some parents are suspicious of education and believe that if educated, their daughter may become promiscuous. These beliefs are difficult and slow to change. To further complicate the situation, the divorce rate is high. If a young woman is divorced, typically the cycle of youth marriage continues and she remarries, sometimes into a polygamous marriage. I understand why it happens: unless her parents take her back in, that is often her best option.

When I first came to the camp working with CVT, I knew I would be perceived as different even though I am Somali. Many people assume Somali girls don’t get education, but I have a college education. Also, I wasn’t sure I’d be accepted as a manager because I am female. That was one of the biggest fears for me in taking this position. But the people were very welcoming and accepted me. This was especially important with the men. I knew I needed to demonstrate leadership in order to be accepted.

I had a conversation recently with a number of people whom I met when I first came to work at Dadaab. They shared some of their early perceptions of me, and told me that when I first arrived, most staff thought I would be weak making decisions. When I showed them that was not the case, I earned respect. Over time working together, we confronted issues and worked through them. In some cases, we agreed to disagree, but I showed them I was willing to work through differences and make decisions. This caused them to have respect for me. They told me I am a good manager.

Today, I am the only female Somali who is leading an agency in Dadaab. I am still perceived as a bit different. Because of this, I work to help other women whenever I can. Some things are very simple, like reaching out to them and asking them to join me in new activities if they wish. As an example, I like to walk every day. Last year, I was the only Somali woman I knew of who went for regular walks. Over time, I recruited a number of other Somali women who work at NGOs, and now we all walk together. It’s a great way to get exercise and spend time together.

Even if it is a slow process, things are beginning to change for women in Dadaab. I hope the changes open doors to a better future for very young women like Hibaq.

*Name has been changed for reasons of privacy.

CVT’s work in Dadaab is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the United Methodist Women International Ministries.


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