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Gender and Social Inclusion

Notes from the Field: Congolese Refugee Girls in Tanzania Speak Out


Girls at the Nyarugusu Camp map out where they feel safe and unsafe in the community.

It was no easy journey from Dar es Salaam to the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania; my colleague and I took a regional flight, ferry boat and drove for 12 hours through muddy roads. But the week that followed made it all seem worth the effort. During the 16 years of its existence, the camp had never before had anyone from the outside come to talk one-on-one with adolescent girls to learn about their specific needs and challenges.

As a relatively peaceful country in comparison to its neighbors, Tanzania, has been hosting refugees from other more tumultuous countries in the region for over four decades. There are now two refugee camps in Tanzania: Mtabila, which hosts 36,000 refugees from Burundi and Nyarugusu Camp, which hosts 66,500 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Tanzanian government wishes to close both camps, and in August 2012 announced they would close Mtabila Camp as Burundians were found to no longer be in need of international protection. The status of the Congolese refugees at Nyarugusu Camp will be reviewed this year.

We spent several days there talking to refugee adolescent girls living in a variety of situations: those enrolled in school, those out-of-school, unaccompanied minors, some living with foster families and some with disabilities. In addition, we spoke with adolescent boys, male and female community leaders, informal security officers and staff and volunteers of organizations providing the refugees with services—ranging from gender-based violence counseling to vocational skills training to environmental protection.

There are a multitude of problems affecting adolescent girls in the camp, rendering them more vulnerable than any other group. Because they are poor and have few options to support themselves, they are less likely to stay in school and more likely to marry and have children early. Many have a disproportionate amount of household chores to manage and quite a few have to resort to sex work or other unsafe activities to supplement their family’s income. Girls at Nyarugusu are extremely vulnerable to sexual and physical violence and exploitation. One female community leader told us, “If I had the means to keep my girls safe, I would. But I don’t have the means. All I can do is try to keep the girls busy at home with as much to do as possible during the day so that they don’t go out. And at night I force them to stay inside so they’re not exposed.”

Adolescent girls, especially those out of school, have severely limited access to the services available in the camp. They are often invisible, isolated, and have little or no peer or mentor support. I couldn’t help thinking that if these girls do not learn social and vocational skills now, what will they do when the camp is closed and they are sent into society, without any of the education, training or self-confidence they will need to take care of themselves?

Even their basic needs are not being met, which has far-reaching impact. As one girl said, “I was chased out of school because my uniform was too dirty. I didn’t have soap to wash my clothes.”

But we also heard of some practical solutions. At the end of our trip, we explored some ideas with the girls and community and service providers on ways to improve their lives. The Women’s Refugee Committee will be initiating an 18-month project in Nyarugusu, as well as in other refugee settings in Ethiopia and in Uganda, to better understand what gaps exist for this vulnerable group and to test out some promising approaches that could protect and empower them in the future. I’m hopeful that we will be able to take what we have learned speaking with these girls and to make tangible changes in their lives and to considerably better their odds at surviving and thriving as adults.

Gender and Social Inclusion