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Gender and Social Inclusion

Big Dreams, Harsh Realities for Somali Refugee Girls in Ethiopia

21411699154fb2a01ca7ce7This is the second in a series of blogs based on a trip Women’s Refugee Commission staff made to meet Somali refugee girls in the Jijiga region of Ethiopia and to hear firsthand about the challenges they face. Read the first blog here.

We didn’t know how the group of Somali girls gathered to meet with us at the Sheder refugee camp would react. But, with the help of a local Ethiopian Somali woman, a graduate student at Jijiga University, my colleague Jennifer Schulte and I began to build their trust. To develop rapport with this curious but initially quiet group of adolescent girls, we started with a drawing exercise in which the girls depicted their communities and described their daily activities. The girls drew maps and told vivid stories that took place along the footpaths between home and school or the market, at water collection points, fetching firewood in the bush and in their tukuls (traditional Somali huts) at night. They shared their thoughts and their feelings, and we listened carefully.

I unfortunately had to fly back to Addis as the conversations with the girls really got underway. But Jennifer could not wait to share with me what she was hearing. Once she’d put the girls at ease, they were really eager to share their stories with her. And many were distressing. There seemed to be dangers and risks around every corner. The girls felt afraid almost everywhere except for school. The quote that Jennifer repeated to me that sticks most in my mind was that while collecting water and firewood they faced harassment and attacks from “hyenas, lions…and men.” The girls try never to go out after dark for fear of attack. Several said they felt vulnerable inside their homes as well, due to mistreatment by family members—both men and women. The girls also revealed through drawings and discussion that they were afraid of female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, early pregnancy, rape, kidnapping and sex trafficking.

Jennifer was not surprised but still saddened to learn that many of the girls she spoke with who are not in school are alone, having been orphaned or separated from their families as they fled Somalia. Those who live alone are often in unstable dwellings, with either no door or a flimsy door without an adequate lock. They feel they are “easy prey to anyone who wishes to do them harm.” Whether they live alone or with a foster family, girls fear for their safety and live in survival mode. These girls, particularly those who are young single mothers, face the most severe challenges to meeting their basic needs. In this desperate situation, many turn to sex work to get cash to buy food and medication. Some girls are able to engage in domestic work, but still face exploitation and abuse as they go about doing this work.

Jennifer and I heard how the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), nongovernmental organizations and the refugee central committees in the camps are working to improve the protection and empowerment of girls and women by raising awareness of the issues, improving education and establishing security watch groups in communities. The girls had their own ideas and solutions. They told Jennifer that they need extra financial, nutritional, educational and psychosocial support so that they can go back to school and better their lives and the lives of their siblings or of the ill, disabled or elderly family members who depend upon them.

Jennifer met some girls who despite all this were taking leadership roles in their communities and harbor big dreams. One girl, Zimzim,* is the leader of a youth group in her camp and is a peer promoter raising awareness of issues related to child protection and gender-based violence. Another girl, Ayaan,* is in secondary school and aspires to become a physicist. Hodan* is studying biology and hopes to become a doctor to help her community. In a quieter way, many girls who are in school try to encourage out-of-school girls to return.

The number of girls who finish primary school and go on to secondary school, however, are few. Without opportunities to build their skills and help them get work and with the constant threat of sexual exploitation, abuse and assault, many girls remain demoralized and unable to imagine a future for themselves. Girls not in school often seek assistance from local organizations, looking for a safe space in the camp where they can break their isolation and can support and advise each other. They are also looking for adults to play a positive role in their lives as mentors, who can teach them new skills that will help them find decent work.

Like girls everywhere, the Somali girls in Jijiga, Ethiopia, want to grow up to be self-sufficient women and leaders in their families and communities. They want to be safe and healthy. As several girls said, “Please support my basic needs for food and education so that I can better my own life and those of the people I love.” Those of us in the humanitarian field need to do at least that.

* The girls’ names have been changed to protect their identities.

See a photo essay on the life of girls in the Sheder and Aw Barre refugee camps.

Gender and Social Inclusion