Amina*, 27, left her home town of Kismayo in south-central Somalia at the end of May for northern Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. The journey took her and her four children 14 days and nearly broke them, but between the famine and the conflict, she was afraid that staying in Somalia could mean death.
"Many people had fled and said they were coming to Kenya. I also gathered my children and a few things and decided to follow them," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "We arrived in Dadaab but we were told we couldn’t stay in the camp until we were registered, so we made a house using torn clothes and sacks and stayed there."
One day, while out collecting firewood to cook for her family, Amina says she was attacked by three men who wrestled her to the ground and took turns to rape her.
"They just came from different directions... I didn't even know they knew each other, but they all approached me. One of them grabbed me, pushed me on the ground and tore off my clothes and they raped me," she said. "I couldn't make a noise because one held my legs and one closed my mouth."
A month after the attack, Amina was finally registered and told camp officials about the rape. She was referred to Hagadera Hospital, a facility in the camp run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
"When I told them, they counselled me and I was taken to test for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. I didn't have any of them, but I haven't been myself since what I went through," she said. "It [rape] happens to many of us on our way to Dadaab, or when we go to look for firewood."
SGBV cases on the rise
CARE International in July said reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp had increased from 75 between January and June 2010 to 358 during the same period in 2011.
Originally established in 1991 to house 90,000 refugees, the camp's population exceeds 460,000, and aid workers warn that women and girls are increasingly vulnerable to violence either on their way to the camps or inside them.
"New arrivals that live on the outskirts where security is never assured are even more vulnerable," Sinead Murray, gender-based violence programme manager for the IRC in Dadaab, told IRIN/PlusNews.
Women and girls inside the camp have access to protection mechanisms, including firewood safety patrols, community patrols and safe spaces for girls and women, but those in the outposts are largely on their own.
Many new arrivals awaiting registration have to live in outposts, or refugee settlements outside the designated camps. These unplanned settlements - which agencies say are largely occupied by women and children - tend to be poorly lit and insecure.
A July assessment by the IRC of gender-based violence in Dadaab found that victims of sexual violence were usually reluctant to report out of shame, or for fear that their families would blame them or their communities would reject them as unmarriageable.
Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
|NGOs in the camp are trying to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence|
Participants in the assessment identified sexual violence and rape as the biggest concern for women and girls while fleeing Somalia; they reported women and girls being raped in front of their husbands, at the insistence of “bandits” or “men with guns”, or being forced to strip naked and being raped by multiple perpetrators.
"Many incidents did go unreported and even now many still remain unreported, but we have started to carry out awareness within the target population and set up ways that women and girls can report such cases without feeling victimized... We have started to see an increase in reported cases," said Murray. "Carrying out behaviour change communication targeting both men and women is critical in reducing cases of sexual violence in the camps and these efforts have been stepped up."
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is providing post-rape kits and other reproductive health tools to health facilities in the camp. Women and girls who report sexual violence are provided with psychosocial support, HIV counselling and testing, screening for STIs, pregnancy tests and treatment for any infection. At the registration centres, referral systems for new arrivals who report sexual violence have been put in place so they can get help at medical facilities.
According to Matilda Musumba, the emergency response officer at UNFPA's Dadaab office, the lack of information about how to deal with sexual violence left new arrivals at risk of injury, infection and unwanted pregnancies.
"Providing basic information to new arrivals on where to report cases of violence against them is an important first step in reducing cases of gender-based violence, because when they arrive and they have no information, women and girls become susceptible to sexual exploitation," she said.
*not her real name