Empowering South Sudan’s First Female President

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IMG 1862 croppedSouth Sudan’s first female president is living in a refugee camp. She is a teenager with a dream—and a daily routine that doesn’t include the camp’s makeshift school. Instead, she is responsible for household duties. She walks long distances to collect firewood. She stays home to care for her older sister, who has an intellectual disability.

Yet from this hardened path, she nurtures aspiration. Like the adolescent girls in our own lives—our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters—her dream is strong. In a calm, confident voice, she shares it with me:

Ayen wants to be the president of South Sudan.

Any young person’s chance of becoming a nation’s leader is admittedly slim, and the odds are uniquely stacked against Ayen. But probability is not destiny.  And the theme of this year’s Day of the Girl Child sets us firmly in the right direction: Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence. By putting power, knowledge, and assets in girls’ hands, we can collectively tilt the balance in Ayen’s favor—and in the favor of millions of girls like her.

The tragic cost of family detention: sexual abuse and assault

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The Administration's recent expansion of family detention comes at a tragic and horrific cost. This week, allegations of sexual abuse and assault were revealed inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement's new family detention center. I wish I was surprised, but unfortunately, this isn't the first time we have heard this. Rampant sexual assault inside detention facilities has been documented and reported for more than fourteen years.

Unaccompanied Migrants & Human Trafficking

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Congress returns today, September 8 to unfinished business: trying to pass a budget and respond to the President’s request for supplemental funding to address the increase of women and children coming to the U.S. seeking protection. When Congress left for its five week recess they had not reached a consensus on emergency funding for the crisis. Without approved funding, the Obama Administration was forced to divert funds from other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operations to meet the  immediate costs. This means that Congress needs to approve a spending bill as soon as possible upon return.

However there is a major concern that lawmakers will use such a spending bill to change current legislation designed to protect victims of human trafficking. Prior to the recess there was a lot of discussion about amending the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). The change, which was first proposed by the Obama administration, entails changing the way children from non-contiguous countries (mainly, countries other than Mexico or Canada) are treated at the border.

Ebola: Nondiscriminatory Virus, Uneven Burden

Ebola crisis, Guinea
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The Ebola virus is unique in many ways -- but not all. A series of facts about the current outbreak reflects a trend that the Women’s Refugee Commission consistently finds in its research and highlights in its advocacy: When crises happen, women and girls of all ages are uniquely vulnerable and disproportionately impacted. 

Fact: The Ebola virus, which is transmitted to people from wild animals and infects humans through human-to-human transmission, is an equal opportunist. The virus, for which no drug or vaccine has been proven effective, demonstrates no preference for male or female, young or old.

tags: Women

Urban Livelihoods: Leveraging What Works in the Local Community

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Half of the world's 10.5 million refugees now reside in cities. They often have few assets, limited support networks, and are constrained by legal, cultural and linguistic barriers. To date humanitarian efforts have focused primarily on camp-based refugees, leaving the needs of urban refugees poorly understood.

CIYOTA: Uniting Youth & Solving Shared Problems

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I am Joseph Munyambanza, a-23-year old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the age of 6, my village was attacked and I fled to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda. There, I lived among thousands of refugees. Driven there by different conflicts in different countries, we all ran from violence and its many problems. Even after arriving at the refugee settlement, a presumed place of safety, we faced poverty, violence, and disease. Many children lacked parents or guardians. Most children lacked quality education: in a camp of 23,000 people, 50% of whom were of school age, there was only one high school. It was overcrowded, understaffed, and terminated in grade 10. And across the refugee settlement, we all lacked responsible leaders to cultivate hope for the future.

So at the age of 14, I and three friends founded "CIYOTA," the COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa. "COBURWAS" mixes the names of the countries we come from: Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan. Together as CIYOTA, our goal is to unite refugee youth from different countries to solve shared problems.

Healing Invisible Wounds

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If you've glanced at the headlines or scanned newspaper photos in recent months, then you've come across the visual consequences of crisis and forced displacement.

In Syria, millions of war-battered women and children trekking miles to seek refuge in neighboring countries. In Gaza, hundreds of civilians killed and homes destroyed. In the United States, thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America and arriving at the border. In the Central African Republic, scores of families leaving their homes to escape sectarian violence.

Less easily captured by media are the invisible wounds: the mental health consequences that these sights, sounds and moments have on displaced persons, particularly youth.

Adolescent refugee girls in Tanzania at the forefront of change

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Sifa Mateso's father passed away when she was in primary school. Her mother was left alone to care for her and her sibling. At age 14, Sifa decided to get married.

"I thought I could make a better life and assist my mother and my sibling," she explains. "My mother faced many difficulties. The situation at home was getting worse every day."

Soon after her first child was born, Sifa's husband began to abuse her, both physically and emotionally. She divorced him, packed up and headed back home with her child.

Read the blog by Kulsoom Rizvi of the International Rescue Committee, about an adolescent girls project that is supported by the Women's Refugee Commission.

A Step in the Right Direction: New Commitments to Disability Inclusion in Refugee Settings

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Last year in Lebanon, my colleague Emma met 16-year-old Zeinah*. Zeinah, who had recently arrived as a refugee from Syria, had been shot in the back while shielding her 3-month-old baby as they were fleeing the city of Homs, leaving her unable to walk and wheelchair dependent.

Of the world's 51.2 million people displaced by conflict and persecution, an astonishing 7.7 million are persons with disabilities. While many of their disabilities are longstanding, many are new, like Zeinah's, the result of war-related violence.

tags: Disabilities

Obama’s Quick Fix Won’t Solve the Regional Refugee Crisis

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Editor's Note: Rather than recognizing the humanitarian refugee crisis, the Obama administration is responding as though it were an immigration issue, writes Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission.

In recent months, an unprecedented surge of refugee women and children has been traveling alone to the United States to seek protection at our southern border. The vast majority are fleeing their homes in the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and risking their lives as they make long and incredibly dangerous journeys to seek refuge on our soil.