The safe haven in Dadaab

Thursday, September 22, 2011

By Melany Markham

Mahadu Biriye is matron of the women’s refuge at Hagadera camp in Dadaab. As a former counsellor she offers empathy and understanding to the women who find their way to the refuge, named the Safe Haven, which can accommodate up to 120 women and children fleeing desperate situations.

Being almost devoid of trees, the haven seems desolate. But Biriye’s welcome and the happiness of the families living there is evidence the programme is fulfilling its purpose. To the three families there now, it is a welcome sanctuary.

The Safe Haven is run by ACT member the Lutheran World Federation. Women and children are referred by any of the many charitable organisations working in Dadaab. Although women and their families are only supposed to stay at the centre for a maximum of three months, some families have lived there up to three years. “Mostly, they encounter problems with their male relatives,” says Biriye.

One woman had been subjected to a brutal rape but had sought refuge not to escape her attackers but the stigma she experienced in the community. While she was in the refuge, her husband found a home in another part of Dadaab. She was planning to move back there with her children.

Girls often come to the haven to escape early marriage. In Somali culture, women are promised to their husbands when they are teenagers. Around the age of 15, teenage girls are engaged and their husbands pay a dowry to their families. Biriye spoke of cases in which Somali men living overseas had come to the camps in Kenya to find young Somali women to marry. The price or dowry paid to the bride's family can be as much as US $526. To a family that has lost everything, it is enough for them to marry their daughters to people they don’t know.

The parents of one young woman in the refuge were pressuring her into marriage at the age of 14. She had been at the safe haven almost three years and was in the process of seeking asylum in the United States.

The safe haven is not the only programme aimed at improving the situation of Somali women in Dadaab. Social workers throughout the camp help identify people who have been subjected to violence or abuse. A campaign to stop early marriage has met some success.

A safe place to live is only part of the remedy. The other is finding a durable way out of the cycle of violence. Counselling, literacy classes and an income generation programme are run, with bags and bracelets produced by the women becoming something of a fashion statement among Dadaab workers. A UNHCR shop sells bags that sell out almost as soon as they come into stock. Other NGOs place bulk orders with the women for items such as computer cases.

Image by Jonathan Ernst/LWF

Caption: Mahadu Biriye talks about her work as the matron of the safe haven for vulnerable families at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya