Violence against women and girls collecting firewood is spiking in and around the refugee camp in Tanzania where more than 100,000 Burundian refugees have sought safety in recent months.
While the world watches the refugee crisis unfold in Europe, another crisis is occurring thousands of miles south, where women bear the brunt of a horrifying yet familiar struggle.
Far from the spotlight of western media, election-related violence in the east African nation of Burundi has forced more than 200,000 people to flee to neighboring Tanzania. Since April, more than 100,000 have sought safety in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, joining the 66,000 Congolese refugees who have been living there for decades.
This influx of people is putting tremendous pressure on local natural resources, including firewood used for cooking fuel. Time after time we see that the competition for decreasing natural resources increases tensions between refugee and host communities and results in increased rape and other assault on women and girls when they leave camps to collect firewood.
In fact, the International Rescue Committee reports an average three to four incidents of sexual assault during firewood collection per week in Nyarugusu – up from three to four incidents per month between May and July. Since sexual violence is typically underreported, the rates are likely significantly higher.
Refugees International (RI), in a just-released report, found that in Nyarugusu the humanitarian community has fallen unacceptably short of minimum standards and failed to adhere to guidelines to prevent gender-based violence in humanitarian settings. Community members told RI that “the camp’s perimeter and beyond – where refugees search for firewood – ranked as the most dangerous area, with firewood collection considered the most dangerous activity.”
And yet, cooking fuel has not been provided, except to very few of the most vulnerable individuals (persons with disabilities and the very elderly). The World Food Programme has provided new arrivals with ready-to-eat meals and some organizations have been undertaking ad hoc activities to address this issue. But the problem has not really been addressed.
This is a familiar storyline for refugee women and girls. More than a decade ago, the Women’s Refugee Commission alerted the humanitarian community – and in fact, the world – that the common but necessary chore of firewood collection was exposing women to constant violence. In fact, we led a coalition of organizations that resulted in the distribution of fuel-efficient cookstoves and alternative energy sources. Humanitarian programs were developed that encouraged women to use alternative energy as an income-generating business opportunity, turning tragedy into opportunity.
Today, the need for energy to cook is widely recognized as a necessity for refugees, most of whom will live in refugee camps and settlements for 20 years on average.
And yet, in Nyarugusu, the same old story plays out again. Conflict is forcing more individuals into displacement and the violence against them and the women and girls who were already there spikes. While solutions are available, they are missing from Tanzania.