International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Famine Crisis in the Horn of Africa: US Response and the Challenges Ahead

Comments of Elizabeth Pender
Emergency Technical Advisor, Women’s Protection and Empowerment
International Rescue Committee

House Hunger Caucus Briefing

“Famine Crisis in the Horn of Africa: US Response and the Challenges Ahead”
04 August 2011


Congresswoman Emerson, Congressman McGovern and members of the caucus:

Please let me begin by saying that I appreciate the opportunity to appear here today, along with my colleagues to brief on the issue of the famine and drought within the Horn of Africa. My name is Elizabeth Pender and I am the Emergency Technical Advisor for Women’s Protection and Empowerment (WPE) for the International Rescue Committee.

The famine that has gripped southern Somalia is the most severe crisis in the world today. And it is projected to get worse. The IRC has been working in the Horn of Africa since 1992 and has established programs in the camps for Somali refugees who have come to Kenya and Ethiopia.

You already know the most dire statistics. It is hard to fathom that over half a million children are facing starvation at this very moment. But I am here today to talk to you about a story you might not be hearing and that is the story of the Somali women and children who make up 80% of those who have been displaced.

This is a crisis with a female face. Women and girls experience violence regularly as they flee Somalia and cross over one of the most dangerous and lawless borders in the world only to arrive in an already overcrowded refugee camp.

Violence against women and girls is often talked about in the context of war but what our colleagues are seeing in Ethiopia, what I have seen in Dadaab – and what I saw in Burma with the cyclone, in Haiti with the earthquake, and in Pakistan with the floods - violence is pervasive and life-threatening in natural disasters as well.

So if I have one recommendation to give today – it would be that the US must respond to this crisis and respond not just with assistance to fight malnutrition and disease but also to protect women and girls from this insidious violence.

Two weeks ago, I was in Hagadera, one of the camps near Dadaab to conduct an assessment. The IRC had already witnessed alarming trends - in June alone, we saw a four fold increase in reported cases of sexual violence as compared to the previous five months. And in July, those numbers doubled from June.

To better understand this trend, we met with women and girls who had recently come into the camp. They told us that rape and sexual assault were the most pressing protection concerns they faced during flight, both in Somalia and crossing over into Kenya. Those we spoke to reported that women and girls were raped by “bandits” or “men with guns”, sometimes by multiple men and sometimes in front of other family members.

One woman told me “while we were walking, if the men with guns saw a pretty girl, they would take her and they would keep her”. A 22-year old woman said to me, “There are men with guns there (in the forest) who will not even care if you are old, pregnant or sick. They will rape you without consideration.”

And while the journey is dangerous, Dadaab is not the safe haven that they hoped for. Newly arriving refugees are settling in exposed and unplanned areas that lie on the outskirts of the official borders of the camps. IRC conducted a review of the safety in these areas and found that they were lacking in many of the essentials - security, services, sufficient latrines for the growing number coming in.

Women and girls that we spoke to reported experiencing violence and harassment when collecting firewood each day, or having to travel to the forest to find privacy to use a toilet. Aid agencies are trying to stretch already limited resources to meet current needs but 1,200 people arrive each day.

It now takes up to two months to simply get registered and once registered initial supplies are not enough. In such a situation the risks of violence, abuse and exploitation are enormous. Girls as young as 14, and probably younger, are being forced to marry in exchange for money or resources paid to their families.

Women and girls experience theft and violence when aid is distributed, and as tensions rise in the home, women are experiencing violence daily from their own spouses. And this in addition to the rape that is pervasive.

To be clear, violence against women and girls has always been a problem in Dadaab. Established to host 90,000, over four times that many are currently housed there. Yet with the new arrivals things have gotten worse.

In short, Dadaab is not a safe place for women and girls. And everything I’ve told you today is being echoed by my colleagues in Ethiopia.

The good news is that these problems can be solved. There are mechanisms that can be put in place to respond to and prevent this violence.
These are simple solutions – ones that can be easily implemented with the right attention and resources.

If women and girls who experience violence receive immediate assistance, and have access to safe spaces for reporting and support, they can recover and heal. A first priority, a lifesaving priority, should be to ensure that services for survivors are scaled up in areas hosting new arrivals and are available as new camps and reception centers are opened.

Secondly, basic measures can be established to significantly reduce risks within the camp itself – construct new and separate latrines, set up safe spaces, ensure that women and girls can receive food and assistance without fear of being robbed or attacked.

These are not original ideas – these are the minimum standards endorsed by the humanitarian community – and if resources are provided they not only can be met in Dadaab (and in fact in any refugee camp), but should be met, where those fleeing famine are headed.

And finally, we must work to ensure that women and girls don’t need to flee in the first place. The minute a woman or girl must leave her home, the risks she faces increase exponentially. The US must find a way to address the famine inside Somalia.

The United States has been a leader in investing in women and girls and stating loudly and clearly that their needs are not secondary – they are of primary importance to our development and security goals.

The US must continue to be an advocate for women and girls in the community of donors who are responding. The women and girls of Somalia are counting on it.

Thank you.