International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Reaching out to Somali girls in a Kenyan refugee camp

In the Nomad Hotel of Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi nicknamed “Little Mogadishu,” 26 refugees sit around a U-shaped table—teachers, women’s leaders, religious leaders from the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab. Most of them are young women between the ages of 17 to 22, here for training on mentoring adolescent girls.

The training, led by the International Rescue Committee’s women’s protection and empowerment team in partnership with Population Council, is part of a project to help adolescent girls (ages 10-14) in Dadaab develop confidence, social skills and economic acumen. Over five days, the mentors study a specially designed curriculum that covers reproductive health, effective communication and basic finance. 

Carolyn Njogu, the IRC’s adolescent girls officer, stands in front of the women, leading a recap of yesterday’s training. “What is one thing you learned yesterday?” she asks the women in English, which Hussein and Abass, refugee staff on the team, translate into Somali. Most of refugees in Dadaab are there to escape the conflict and hunger crisis in their native country.

At first, the participants are timid. But one raises her hand and offers a thought: “The role of mentors is to mobilize younger girls, advise and guide them, and educate them.” Soon more hennaed hands shoot up and the women begin to discuss the particular needs of adolescent girls and the importance of role models. 

Next Carolyn leads the young women in an exercise to map safe spaces in Hagadera. One stands up and asks in confident English, “How can we work with the girls in the outskirts of the camp?” It is a good question, as many of the newly arrived refugees, over 80 percent women and children, find no other option than to settle on the edge of the over-congested camps. Carolyn flips the question back to the group in a different form: What are the characteristics of a safe space? Can we find a place in the outskirts of Hagadera that fits the criteria? The mentors use the mapping exercise to devise a way to recruit newly arrived girls into their groups.

Twenty-three-year-old Fatumo Yussuf, one of the three community workers dedicated to the adolescent girls program, explains to me that adolescent girls face problems ranging from female genital mutilation (especially among girls ages 8-10) to forced marriage (typically for girls ages 13-15, but as young as nine), sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy, the last often leading to disownment. 

Fatumo helped launch the program in October 2011, raising awareness throughout the refugee community and gaining the support of key leaders. A mentor herself, she spends Saturdays gathering her group of 20 to 30 girls from their homes and bringing them to a safe space to discuss difficult issues.

Most of the young girls in the outskirt areas have been in Hagadera for less than a year. “This makes a big difference, in how familiar they are with the camp and in how they can protect themselves in their setting,” says Fatumo. 

For Sinead Murray, who oversees the IRC’s women’s protection work in Dadaab, it is important for the mentors to engage in the design of the program through this training. “We want to reach out to girls after they leave school but before they get married—that critical age between 10 and 14—so that we have a higher chance of reducing their likelihood of experiencing violence.” 

As the training session continues, a representative from IRC’s partner, Population Council, asks the women to demonstrate activities that will help keep their girls attentive and interested throughout the Saturday sessions. Fatumo and I smile as one mentor leads the group in song: “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean.”

Turning to Fatumo, I ask her, “Who is your mentor?” A grin flashes across her face and she nods her head towards the front of the room. “Carolyn.” 

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1 comment


Congrats Carol for your hard

Congrats Carol for your hard work which. Truly prevention is better than cure. Lets do the best we can to help prevent Gender Based Violence. As they get into mariage they will have learnt lifeskills to help them prevent violence against themselves.