[GOZ-BEIDA] Djabal refugee camp in eastern Chad, where some residents have stayed for nearly a decade after fleeing violence in neighbouring Sudan, illustrates some of the family and social problems engendered by displacement and dependency.
“Before, in Darfur [Sudan], both men and women used to work, but virtually no one has a job here,” Achtar Abubakr Ibrahim, a women’s refugee leader in Djabal, told IRIN. “The men found themselves jobless, the women became dependent on the jobless men and this created frustration and anger, so the men started battering the women.”
At Djabal camp, which has about 18,000 refugees, groups of men sit in the shade talking for hours on end, while the women do casual jobs, if possible, in addition to their household chores of taking care of the children, and fetching water and firewood.
“The women decided to work. They went to town to do brick-making for their children [‘s sake], but the men want to misuse [the earnings], leading to violence,” said Achtar.
“The women have hustled and found something, the men are idle and it affects their self-esteem. Their egos are battered,” an aid official, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN.
“In some cases, the man has sold the food ration in exchange for alcohol or a mobile phone, so on food aid distribution day the woman has to secretly take along the ration card,” said the official, recalling a case in which a man had sold the family’s food ration to buy a phone. “The woman was screaming, saying we are going to eat a mobile phone for a month.”
Despite efforts to promote self-sufficiency, Darfuri refugees in Chad continue to depend almost entirely on humanitarian assistance for their basic needs, notes a June 2011 report by the US Cultural Orientation Centre. Access to arable land remains generally non-existent for these refugees, says ACT Alliance, an alliance of 125 churches and related organizations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development.
Family breakdowns compound the refugees’ plight. “It is amazing how almost all people [couples] who left Darfur married, have divorced,” said Djabal camp’s Achtar.
There are many widowed women, young mothers and divorcees in eastern Chad refugee camps, says Magua Kanja, country director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in Chad. “They marry today, tomorrow they are divorced, yet they have children to take care of.”
HIAS is working in six refugee camps in the east. Eastern Chad is home to about 264,000 Sudanese refugees in 12 camps.
For those exposed to gender-based violence (GBV) access to health care and other psychosocial support is a challenge. “The community does not want to encourage such reporting, they want to solve it locally. The culture does not encourage sorting out issues outside the family. If you take the [battered] woman to a hospital, other people will know,” explained Kanja.
“HIAS and other partners operating in the camps make every effort to sort out GBV cases in the presence of the family.”
For refugee women, many of them traumatized by having to flee, their family is so important to them that the idea of leaving their husbands, even if there was GBV, is not a realistic option.
HIAS is training some of the refugee women in skills such as bread- and soap-making through the organization’s community centres “instead of just offering psychological support in the form of counselling, then accompanying them to hospital to seek medical care,” said Kanja.
“We are preparing them such that should they go back to their country of origin; they will have some skills even as donor funding also reduces.”
Refugee women are more affected by violence than any other population of women in the world and are at risk of rape or other forms of sexual violence, says a Denver University study.
“The setting in which a refugee lives, often a refugee camp, forces her to rely on others in a way that makes her increasingly vulnerable to violence. For example, if she is no longer able to contribute to the family income, she becomes dependent on male support, increasing the likelihood that she will endure abuse in order to meet her needs.”
“Refugees - particularly women and children - can experience violence during their journey as well as an increase in GBV when in crowded camp conditions, stress from difficult experiences, and a lack of protection and resources,” adds Jaya Vadlamudi, a senior communications officer with International Medical Corps (IMC).
In the five refugee camps where the IMC operates in eastern Chad, between January 2011 and March 2012 GBV cases represented 1.7 percent of total consultations, early marriage 20 percent, physical violence 35 percent, domestic violence 33 percent, and rape 11 percent, said Vadlamudi.
IMC provides medical services for survivors of sexual assault, including essential drugs (post-exposure prophylaxis to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection, and emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies).
“We take a holistic approach to all of our GBV programmes so that we not only treat the physical and psychological aftermath of abuse, but also prevent future cases through community education and outreach,” he added.
Early marriage and GBV
At Djabal refugee camp, for example, early marriage is prevalent. “It is difficult convincing people [in the refugee camp] that this is a form of GBV,” said Achtar who got married at the age of 15 and is a mother of 12 at only 37 years old; one of her sons, aged 17, is already a husband.
“Family planning is sort of a taboo subject in the region, people don’t talk about it,” said an aid official. “It is difficult because of cultural reasons and the lack of male involvement. They want many children. It is a sign of fertility.”
There have been recorded cases of sexual violence against eastern Chad refugee women out looking for firewood. A UN Refugee Agency initiative to bring solar-powered lights and fuel-efficient stoves to some of the camps over the next three years, aims to address some of the security and environmental challenges.
“We have to walk the whole day sometimes [looking for firewood]. We used to be attacked in 2006-2007 but these attacks have reduced,” said Achtar.
Eastern Chad is recovering after years of a proxy war between it and Sudan, following a January 2010 agreement between the two governments, but attacks on civilians and other forms of criminality continue.
Since 2011, the UN-supported Chadian security force, Détachement Intégré de Sécurité (DIS), has been working to provide security in and around refugee camps and to protect convoys of returning displaced people. Since the withdrawal of the UN Mission in Chad and the Central African Republic (MINURCAT) in 2010, the presence of DIS has been essential in order to generate respect for the law, prevent the recruitment of children into armed groups, and reduce the number of incidents of sexual assault and GBV in and around refugee camps.
In the first half of 2010, at least 250 general complaints of sexual abuse and GBV were reported to DIS in the east, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch Report.