Don’t Skimp on Aid to East Africa–Women Will Pay the Price

This week, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged a total of $122 million to famine relief in East Africa, putting the total U.S. contribution to the crisis over $580 million. The recent pledges maintain the U.S. position as the biggest donor nation.

But is it enough? The U.N. recently called for $2.5 billion to meet the need of 12.6 million people suffering from hunger across East Africa, many of whom are women and young children. While the president’s recent pledge is good news after thus-far-inadequate contributions from private donors and other countries, the developing reports out of East Africa show that the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis” is far from over.

On Friday, seven people were killed in a looting of aid distribution trucks in Somalia. Last week, the UN announced that the famine has spread to three other regions in the nation and is likely to continue. And news broke several weeks ago that women in the overflowing refugee camps have been subject to widespread violent and sexual attacks, particularly in the surrounding tent cities.

“This is not a gender-neutral crisis,” says Liz Pender, an Emergency Technical Advisor for the Women’s Protection & Empowerment Unit of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “It never is, but this crisis [especially] has a female face.” Women and children make up 80 percent of the refugees.

One encouraging development came in late July when the Kenyan government bowed to months of international pressure and agreed to open the IFO II camp to Somalian refugees, creating space for 90,000 incoming families. UNHCR began moving refugees into the newly opened camp on July 25. The camp had been sitting half-built and empty after the Kenyan government issued a letter last year ordering UNHCR to halt construction of mud-and-brick-homes. While some Kenyan officials claimed they feared potential terrorist attacks by incoming refugees, it’s more likely, given that four-fifths of the refugees are women and young children, that officials were simply reluctant to establish yet another semi-permanent refugee camp within their borders. Scarce resources such as firewood have already caused tension and conflict between the local Kenyan population and arriving Somalian refugees. Kenya too faces huge shortages from the drought.

While the opening of IFO II is a small victory, it is impossible to open new camps fast enough to meet the ever-growing need. Even with the construction of a new camp, Kambioos, near the Hagadera camp, the backlog of refugees waiting to register at any of the Daddaab camps is 16,000 and growing. Refugees can only move into the camps and receive non-food aid once they are registered.

Meanwhile, women still face danger both outside and inside the camps, says Pender, who recently returned from compiling a report for the IRC on the experiences of women refugees in the Hagadera camp in Dadaab. Women continue to report frequent harassment and violence when leaving the camp to retrieve firewood or visiting the few established latrines within the camp. (UNHCR is conducting a similar, more extensive survey of violence in the other Dadaab camps.)

Pender also received reports of widespread domestic violence in the camps. UNHCR spokesperson Charity Tooze explains:

Everything is exacerbated in a refugee situation.  For example, when I worked with Iraqi refugees there was a rise in domestic violence because the gender dynamics changed. In a camp situation, like Dadaab, where the capacity is far beyond it’s intended purpose, issues that arise in normal life are tenfold.

Aid organizations like the IRC and UNHCR are trying to establish some level of security for those still forced to live outside the camp. The IRC is distributing “dignity kits,” complete with whistles and solar-powered flashlights. They’re also advocating for the establishment of community-driven initiatives to minimize and reduce risk while women are collecting firewood, or going to the forest to find privacy to go to the toilet. The Women’s Refugee Commission has suggested to aid organizations that they supply emergency cooking fuel and fuel-efficient stoves, saving women the dangerous trip into the unprotected bush.

Moreover, due to strict restrictions by the Kenyan government, abortion is not safely and legally available to women in the camp. Humanitarian groups are working to provide other health-care services to women victims of sexual violence, such as rape kits, emergency contraceptives and psychological care.

But, Tooze explains, in times of severe crisis, “some needs are going to fall through the cracks,” and such services for women are likely to feel the brunt of funding cuts. The UN recently announced it has only received around half of the $2.5 billion it needs to meet the current demand. According to Challiss McDonough of the World Food Programme, there have been no shortages of food aid yet, but supplies will run out without an increase in funding.

Refugee camps are particularly underfunded–camps in Kenya have received only 48 percent of what they need to operate, and the few functioning camps in Ethiopia have raised less than 10 percent of the 22 million they’re seeking. The Guardian reported that private donations have been far lower for the famine than for previous disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti or the flooding in Pakistan.

For now, the U.S. is giving needed aid. But what happens as the GOP push to balance the U.S. budget drags on? Amid the never-ending debt ceiling and budget debates, foreign aid can seem like an easy cut. Now more than ever, many are claiming the U.S. government can’t afford to support humanitarian concerns abroad as they struggle to create jobs at home (although the U.S. managed to give $1 billion in aid to a drought in the Horn of Africa during the 2008 financial crisis). President Obama’s “Feed the Future” program, which provides agricultural aid to Africa to prevent future famine, may lose a third of its funding thanks to a House Appropriations committee decision. The House also recently passed a 27 percent cut in USAID funding and a 12 percent reduction in international disaster response funding, which could compromise the president’s ability to approve future aid. But who bears the true cost of such cutbacks?

As one woman refugee told Pender:

You go out into the forest and there are men with guns. They don’t care if you’re old, they don’t care if you are sick, they don’t care if you are pregnant. They rape you without consideration.

While it may seem the U.S. can’t afford to continue to send aid, the women of Eastern Africa can afford even less to be left unprotected.

To urge the Obama administration to continue to send aid for the famine victims, you can sign this Care2 petition:

[iframe http://dev-msmag.pantheonsite.io_care2_somaliafamine.asp 240]

Photo by International Rescue Committee / Peter Biro. Somali refugee women are in dire need of protection as rapes increase at refugee camps in Kenya.


Christie is a senior Journalism and International Studies major at Northwestern University. Recently returned from a semester in India, she is ready to take on international women's issues and the L.A. public transit system.