Dadaab refugees face sexual violence on camp journey

Somali women who have escaped drought and war in their home country to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp tell CBC News they faced desperate journeys where sexual violence is commonplace.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details

Maryan Madey, who travelled 500 kilometres on foot from Somalia to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp with her young daughters Noria and Halima, says she talked militia members out of raping her. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

Somali women who have escaped drought and war in their home country to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp tell CBC News they faced desperate journeys where sexual violence is commonplace, but risk being marginalized by other refugees if their stories of abuse are heard.

About 80 per cent of the new arrivals are women and children travelling without a male companion, which makes them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence along the way, the CBC's Carolyn Dunn reported from Dadaab.

The United Nations relief camp is already home to more than 460,000 refugees, most of them from Somalia, as the Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the worst famines in decades and continuing violence between government forces and Islamic extremist groups.

Stacking firewood and tidying the area outside her tent in Dadaab provides a welcome distraction from moments Waliya Ibrahim would like to forget.

Her son-in-law was killed in an extremist attack, while her mentally challenged daughter is in hospital, she told the CBC's Dunn.

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She alone brought her five grandchildren and one small cousin to Dadaab. She said the length of the 10-day journey wasn’t even close to the worst thing she experienced.

"I was raped by seven men. One at a time, one at a time," she told Dunn.

She shooed the children away, saying she didn’t want those who are old enough to understand to hear her story.

"I was resisting, but they overpowered me with a gun," she continued. "They were hitting me with the back of the gun."

Social stigma

Somali refugee Waliya Ibrahim didn't want fellow residents or her grandchildren to hear her story of being group-raped by seven men on her 10-day journey to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

As she spoke to Dunn, Ibrahim was also careful that none of the neighbours could hear her. The CBC's security escort stood guard with his rifle to make sure none of them snuck back to eavesdrop.

Ibrahim’s story is not unique, but her willingness to tell it is.

Known rape victims are shunned and even considered unmarriageable, said Fardosa Muse, a gender violence officer for CARE.

"This is a social stigma," Muse told CBC News. "The community are blaming the women who are raped. Of course they’re saying you volunteered yourself to be raped."

Because there’s a reluctance to report, it’s impossible to know how many women are raped as they travel the dangerous journey from Somalia to Dadaab. But there’s little doubt sexual assault is rampant on the road.

Maryan Madey travelled 500 kilometres on foot with her young daughters Noria and Halima.

"You can imagine a mother with two daughters walking alone," she said. "There was a lot of fear."

She described being detained by members of the al-Shabaab militia for days.

"They tried to rape me, to violate me," she said. "But I was able to talk them out of it." 

Part of the counselling offered to the arriving women is to reinforce the idea that they hold no blame for being sexually assaulted.

It’s an uphill battle for women who are so obviously scarred, CARE's Muse said.

"Of course they are traumatized," she told Dunn. "Can you imagine a woman who was trekking for almost 30 days, gang raped by gunmen? In the middle of nowhere with their children?"

Ibrahim said she is still struggling to accept what happened to her.

"It’s difficult to wrap my mind around," she said. "While nothing will take the memories away, counselling is helping to quiet the demons."