"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Surviving rape: Life as a refugee woman

“It was the toughest moment of my life.  I was pregnant against my wishes as a result of rape, going to an unknown country, with no support. But I had to face reality.” 

Speaking from the coffee shack she runs in Nairobi, Jenet recalls the day she stood alone on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya, aged 17.  It was just one critical moment on a traumatic journey that would see her subjected to multiple sexual assaults over the next four years.

When violence broke out in Addis Ababa following the 2005 national elections, Jenet (not her real name) was swept up among the 200,000 people arrested by the army on suspicion of being anti-government protestors.  Jenet was repeatedly raped and tortured during 11 months in detention.  She was also forced to witness the systematic abuse of other detainees, including her mother who was captured with her.  

When Jenet was finally released, she was seven months pregnant.  Fearing rejection from her community and wishing to protect her family from the shame of her situation as an unmarried pregnant woman, Jenet fled the country.  Fragile, wounded and desperate, she placed her trust in people on the border who promised to help her escape – they stole her money and sexually assaulted her.  

Jenet finally made it to Kenya where she spent the next four years selling tea and coffee on the streets, trying to provide for herself and her child.  By now, she had given birth to a second child after being raped again, this time by an employer. 

In need of medical attention and shelter, Jenet found her way to the Refugee Consortium of Kenya who put her in touch with RefugePoint, an organisation that works with some of the most vulnerable people living on the fringes of society in post-conflict situations across Africa, 80 per cent of whom are women and young girls. 

“Coming into contact with RefugePoint has completely changed my life,” says Jenet, who since 2009 has benefited from medical support, food aid, and cash assistance that has enabled her to start a small business. 

Jenet’s recovery is testament to the benefits of livelihood programmes such as those run by RefugePoint, which provide women with the means to become self-sufficient, as well as ensuring they have the support and provisions they urgently need.  Yet her story is also indicative of the myriad of challenges that refugee women must navigate in their bid for safety.

“The whole issue of gender-based violence is as bad if not worse in refugee situations than it is in conflict,"  says Dale Buscher, Director of Protection at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). "Nothing that we’ve done to date has effectively reduced the risks posed to women refugees.”

It is a damming indictment of the lack of progress since sexual and gender-based violence was afforded priority on the humanitarian agenda over twenty years ago.  Jenet’s story adds to the growing legacy of cases that first seized the world’s attention in the 1990s when over a million women are estimated to have been raped during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. 

The sheer scale of abuse prompted the United Nations to recognise the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war. 

Numerous developments have followed, from the landmark 2008 UN Resolution 1820, which called for greater protection and prevention of sexual violence, to community-based education initiatives run by CARE International in Kosovo, which engage men to address gender inequalities as one of the root causes of violence. 

Similar post-conflict models have proved effective in Rwanda, where the National Police Headquarters established a gender-desk that has seen an increase in the number of cases adjudicated and a decrease in the stigma associated with rape.

Yet the violence still continues. 

In Darfur, between October 2004 and February 2005, Medécins Sans Frontières treated 500 displaced women for rape.  More than 80 per cent of those cases occurred when women left in search of water or firewood.  According to CARE International, 40 women are raped every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, described as the “rape capital of the world” by the New York Times.  While in Mogadishu, the UN reported 800 cases of rape between September and November 2012 alone.

How can this be?   It is certainly not for the lack of intervention by the humanitarian community, says Buscher.  Historically, interventions have focused on emergency relief and development work.  Vital though this is, it leaves a gaping hole when it comes to keeping survivors safe from harm. 

The WRC is leading efforts to embed prevention and protection practices into livelihood programmes, to reduce the risks that women refugees are exposed to.  It has established guidelines that ensure women have an advocate who can help vet employers, and that women have safe access to water, cleaning facilities and cooking fuel.

Just as the movement to empower women and raise global awareness about sexual violence has taken some 20 years to spread, Buscher cautions that prevention will be a long journey: “We’re never going to make things 100 per cent safe but we want to at least mitigate as many of those risks as we can.” 

Jenet’s focus is now resolutely on creating a future for her family.  Despite the nightmares she still suffers, she bravely shares her experiences with other women, hoping they can similarly learn to “move on”. 

There is nonetheless a sad sense of resignation in her voice when she says: “I have always found it very difficult to be a woman, even before I was a refugee.  Men take advantage of you.  If you are raped you have to raise children that you never planned but you do it because they are part of your life.  Whatever happened to me was meant to be.  After all that I have gone through, I now know how to cope with life.  These are the realities of life as a woman.”

To have or to be? That is the question

The changing face of development