Refugee Women in Leadership | The Center for Victims of Torture

Refugee Women in Leadership

Friday, October 3, 2014

Michael K. Kamau is a mental health supervisor and trainer with the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab, Kenya.

“It’s like l was in a very deep hole and CVT pulled me out.”

- Female Torture Survivor, Dadaab, Kenya

For nearly three years, the Center for Victims of Torture has provided mental health care to refugees in the world’s largest refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. We hire and train men and women who are part of the refugee community in Dadaab, a complex of camps near the Somali-Kenya border.  As mental health paraprofessionals, or psychosocial counselors (PSCs), they were recruited through a very competitive interviewing process.

Upon their hiring, all PSCs complete an intensive 2-week orientation and training with expert psychotherapist clinician/trainers. They’re introduced to information about torture and war trauma, effects of trauma, and the psychological as well as the psychobiology of trauma. They are trained on clinical practice and methods, including group counseling, working with children and families, and gender issues and sexual violence.

After the initial training, PSCs receive extensive and ongoing training, with close supervision by the psychotherapist clinician/trainers. The goal of this training is to develop skilled paraprofessional mental health counselors with in-depth knowledge who can continue to serve their community even after CVT has departed.

While we train men and women, we have seen the growth of female PSCs not only as skilled mental health providers, but as respected leaders, accepted and valued as a resource by the refugee community.

CVT’s own data shows that most war and torture survivors in the camps are women. So female PSCs are essential to identify women in need of mental health services.

Our female PSCs collaborate with other agency staff and women leaders in the community to identify survivors. They deserve much credit because they literally ‘fish’ out survivors from the tents before they drown in depressive states.

They lead psychosocial group counseling, with close supervision and mentoring by psychotherapist/trainers, and help women survivors process their past traumatic experiences. These are often multiple traumas as a result of war, poverty, flight from their homes, sexual assault and gender-based violence.

In addition to providing group counseling, the female PSCs conduct vigorous home visits in the camp blocks to provide psychological support to torture and war survivors. They assess the home environments for hygiene, family interactions as well as the neighborhood. We’ve seen that this type support enhances the peace at the family and community level. In fact, these female PSCs are considered by community members to be a great resource in peace building and conflict resolutions within the camp subdivisions, known as blocks.

Women PSCs have worked with survivors of gender-based violence, reaching out to them at safe havens where other agencies and UNHCR provide services. This coordination enables the survivors to recover more quickly and improve their ability to function on a daily basis.

Our monitoring and evaluation process has shown that CVT’s work in Dadaab has greatly improved the mental health of women. As their health improves, they’re better able to support healthy children and stable, peaceful families. Refugee women feel empowered to take better care of their families than they did before coming to CVT.

One female survivor said, “There was darkness, but now I see the light.”

This quote is one of the most vivid examples of the fruits of women in leadership. We know there is no health without good mental health. Promoting women leaders who are skilled paraprofessional mental health counselors as well as leaders in the community is essential to reaching women survivors. Beyond transforming the lives of women survivors, their leadership is helping families and communities resolve conflict and live healthier, safer lives.






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