27 January 2008

Kenya: Women And Children Suffering in Camps

Nairobi — As post-election violence escalates in various parts of the country, thousands of people are each day fleeing their homes to seek safety in makeshift camps, becoming known as internally displaced people, or IDPs.

It is now recognised that women and children are bearing the brunt of the raging conflict, and now the red light is on. Sexual abuse has been thrown into the equation, and these two vulnerable groups are suffering double jeopardy.

First, they have to deal with the trauma of being violently uprooted from comfortable and familiar environments to live under deplorable conditions where their existence is dependent on relief efforts.

Then, it is emerging that sexual violence targeting women and girls is rampant in the camps. It follows that the recovery of women and children already traumatised could be fundamentally compromised.

Reports from the internal refugee camps paint a grave picture indeed, and there is a likelihood that the cases coming to the attention of aid workers could just be the tip of the iceberg.

The cases of sexual abuse recorded by aid workers occur at various levels. On one, women and girls are raped during the actual violence. For instance, in the first two days of the violence, 56 cases of rape were recorded in Nairobi alone.

Similarly, during the first day of mass action last week, the Nairobi Women Hospital admitted eight girls, the youngest aged 12 years.

And these are victims who are lucky enough to obtain assistance from responsible people and members of relief agencies. Many more could be suffering silently.

The next level of sexual violence is taking place inside the camps where circumstances of the moment have thrown strangers-men, women and children-into living communally in school halls and tents. In some areas, women and children are living in makeshift structures that are not secure enough to keep out would-be sex predators. Their safety is further compromised by the fact that most of the informal camps lack lighting, and many of the attacks are carried out in the dark.

At another level, the deprivation that informs the lives of the IDPs has bred a situation where desperately impoverished young girls are sexually exploited in order to get some food or clothing.

Given the foregoing, it is evident that even as efforts to resolve the political crises that has precipitated the violence get underway, the country will soon have to grapple with this problem that is silently ravaging the lives of women and children in camps.

Therefore, there is urgent need for both preventive and rehabilitative measures. These are to minimise the risk of sexual attacks and the management of post attack effects.

In these days of HIV and Aids, sexual assault can be lethal unless the victim seeks medical help within 72 hours and has access to post-exposure prophylactic kits that are critical in preventing victims from contracting the virus.

In a conservative society like ours, rape often goes unreported because victims fear stigmatisation. IDPs need to understand that reporting rape could be a matter of life and death, but this will only happen through provision of relevant information by government departments or humanitarians groups.

Since rape is a crime, law enforcement agencies have the responsibility of securing IDP camps to prevent it. This might involve screening people living the camps to identify and isolate known sex pests.

However, it is most important to bear in mind that the increase in sexual attacks is a direct offshoot of the breakdown of law and order and the consequent collapse of social mechanisms. In our situation, there is no substitute for peace in ensuring women and girls are safe from sexual depredation.

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