Sexual Violence in Post-Conflict contexts: Kakuma Refugee Camp
Updated: Apr 25
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Kakuma, a word synonymous with the term “nowhere” in Swahili, is in the outskirts of Kakuma town in Turkana County, North Western Kenya (Boru, 2013; Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, n.d.). Known as the largest refugee camp in the world, Kakuma accommodated 196,666 refugees and asylum seekers as of July 2020 (Inside the World’s 10 Largest Refugee Camps, n.d.).
The commencement of Kakuma refugee camp dates back to the year 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, a group of 20,000 orphaned and displaced young lads who had escaped from the Sudanese Civil War (1987-2005) (Lost Boys of Sudan, 2021; Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, n.d.). The camp received refugees and displaced individuals from Ethiopia, where the government had collapsed, and Somali, a region which faced heightened civil conflict and risk. The camp beheld another significant period in 2014 as a greater inflow of refugees, displaced individuals, and asylum seekers led to intense overcrowding. This resulted in the opening of the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, a region located 20 kilometers away from Kakuma camp for new arrivals (Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, n.d.).
Although both Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement were launched for the welfare and safety of asylum seekers, displaced migrants, and refugees, individuals in these regions have faced and continue to confront dire living conditions. Kakuma is the second poorest region in Kenya and refugees living in camp suffer from disease outbreaks, malnutrition, and shortage of basic resources, among other challenges. Although Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei receive health-care services and education opportunities through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and national government, these facilities are insufficient in number and lack good quality. Moreover, providing these facilities to refugees at camp has resulted in the eruption of violence between the host community and refugees as these services are not provided to members of the host community. Despite the presence of police, ex-military personnel, and local guardians for security, crimes like murder, theft, and sexual and gender-based violence continue to exist at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei (Kakuma, 2021).
Sexual and gender-based violence experienced by refugees at Kakuma and Kalobeyei:
In 2019, the UNHCR recorded 80 percent of refugees as women and children in Kakuma camp, out of which 23.4 percent refugee women were from South Sudan. Most commonly noted reasons for women and children to flee their native country included shortage of basic provisions and increased threat to safety. Sadly, these women do not find the protection they need at Kakuma camp as they live in fear or are subjected to horrific instances of human right abuses (The Impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Host Community, 2019; SGBV Strategy, 2017).
According to UNHCR archives, rape is highlighted as the most frequent form of sexual exploitation amongst women at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei. New arrivals who are in the process of being assigned a tent for shelter and single women who are heads of the household are at an increased risk of experiencing rape. Stranger rape is more prevalent, particularly by refugee men from camp, local community members, or security guards. The standard cultural response to rape involves offering compensation to the survivor or forcing the woman to marry the perpetrator. The high prevalence of rape has led to the normalizaton of this type of sexual violence to a degree where the women themselves do not view rape as a societal problem anymore. Single refugee women who suffer from poverty and are unaccompanied by men who are breadwinners for the family are forced to engage in survival sex for basic supplies like food and water. As a result, sexually transmiited diseases like HIV/ AIDS are rampant at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei. Intimate partner violence is also a common form of abuse suffered by women (The Impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Host Community, 2019; SGBV Strategy, 2017).
Refugee girls are especially at risk of encountering sexual violence as it is easier for older men to dominate minors. Regions in the camp that are in the process of developing accomodative spaces and establishing policies and norms are more perilous for new refugees as these areas are commoly pursued by refugee men for perpetrating sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Neither the perpetrators nor the survivors ethnicity plays a role in commiting rape and being a target of rape. Early and forced marriage, occurs amongst the host community members of Turkana region and refugees at camp. In spite of having dreams of pursuing education and employment, young girls are forced to marry men as old as 60 years. Girls report fearing this practice as they have heard horrific narratives concerning the first consummation between husband and wife. South Sudanese girls encounter augmented danger as they fall prey to systemized kidnapping. These girls are taken to South Sudan to get married to older men and some return to camp after a few years, either pregnant or with children. Female genital mutilation is also normalized and is viewed as a cultural practice rather than a form of violence; however, it is usually performed covertly by community members (The Impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Host Community, 2019; SGBV Strategy, 2017).
Men have also reported experiencing intimate partner violence perpetrated by women, mostly their wives. Reasons include lack of sharing domestic houosehold chores between spouses and men showing greater physical weakness due to consumption of alcohol. Men also experience rape by other men; however, these encounters are highly underreported due to lack of education and awareness of violence against men. Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei provides asylum to individuals who identify as LGBTI and are forced to flee their home country due to high levels of intolerance and the criminilization of LGBTI. Regrettably, residents from the camp typically view members from the LGBTI community with contempt (The Impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Host Community, 2019; SGBV Strategy, 2017).
Basis of violence:
People are shaped by societal attitudes, beliefs, and culture. It is conceivable that most refugees who arrive at camp and prevailing security personnel adhere to patriarchal attitudes and promulgate notions that men are more powerful, consequentially turning a blind eye to violence against women. Beliefs that men have a right to exert control over women emasculates female capability and strength (Kalra & Bhugra, 2013). Similarly, cultural ideas about sexual violence can have great influence on one’s behaviours. Many misogynistic cultures place various forms of sexual violence on a continuum ranging from transgressive force to accepted coercion. This suggests that certain kinds of sexually violent acts are rebuked while other forms may be accepted and even encouraged. Women are forbidden to have control over their sexuality. Therefore, in situations where men vehemently engage in sexual activity and women resist, males undergo an identity crisis related to their sense of power and control over a woman. This leads to intense use of violence and behaviours like rape, kidnapping, etc. ensue (Kalra & Bhugra, 2013). The patriarchal ideas entrenched in Kenya’s culture may also be a reason for the lack of condonation of such violence (Simiyu, n.d.).
Women and girls at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei confront unique circumstances that upsurge their vulneraability to fixed patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes. Refugee men residing in camp are less likely to assume traditional gender roles of being the sole income earner of the family due to reduced financial and employment oppurtunities. This results in an idenity crisis where men question their power and control, leading to aggressive behaviour. Subsequently, women who are employed at camp fall victim to this aggression. Increased boredom, alcoholism, and drug abuse are also contributing factors that increase crime rates within camp. Communal amenities, such as use of lavatories and collection of food, and water are placed remotely. This, paired with factors like bad lighting and lack of security increases oppurtunites for predators to commit sexually violent acts. These crimes go unnoticed as police, ex-military personnel, and security guards use poor interrogative techniques, indulge in bribery, or are offenders themselves. The existence of xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, and time-honoured conflicts between various ethnic groups has also been reported by community members (Sexual Violence Against Refugees, 1995).
In patriarchal societies the words “masculinity” and “victimisation” are viewed as oxymorons; thus, failing to understand that sexual and gender-based violence is a male issue too. A man who is sexually abused is not called a “real man”. Stigmatization, homophobia, and constant societal pressure on men to only reveal their dominating side and suppress vulnerability leads to higher rates of underreporting of sexual violence against males. These beliefs reinforce the idea that males need to take control and show power, hence strengthening the cycle of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps (Jensen, 2019).
International law for refugee protection and sexual violence (1993) recognizes sexual violence as a crime and has taken measures to detect and prevent instances of sexual violence. Nevertheless, it does not impose these laws on a national level and allows countries to frame their own decrees concerning sexual violence (Legal Aspects of Sexual Violence, n.d.). The Sexual Offences Act (2006) enacted by the Kenyan government has criminalized sexual violence. However, this act has vital weaknesses as it fails to recognize and outlaw all forms of sexual violence including marital rape and exploitations faced by the LGBTI coommunity. It also neglects approaches to overcome poor investigative procedures by police and relevant authorities and states no penalty for sexual violence perpetrated by these officials (Association for Women’s Rights in Development, 2007). Since Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei fall under the jurisdiction of Kenya’s laws, shortcomings in the Sexual Offences Act (2006) increase refugee susceptibility to sexual and gender based abuses. The UNHCR has provided guidelines and preventive strategies addressing SGBV at Kakuma and Kalobeyei. However, implementing these preventive measures is a challenge as staff members are incompetent and lack knowledge concerning SGBV but continue to deal with cases of violent behaviour. Due to reduced funding, UNHCR is unable to provide sustainable SGBV prevention programs (The Impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Host Community, 2019; Sexual Violence Against Refugees, 1995). Perhaps superior refugee welfare can be attained by revising national laws that deal with SGBV, increasing interactions between national governments and international organzations to protect refugee rights, and improving public awareness concerning refugees and refugee camps.
Documented by Rasika Sundaram
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