As a Somali woman it was clear to me that the recovery of women who had survived rape attacks depended on the reconstruction of their social and economic networks, that is, reconnecting them to their social environment and rebuilding their status in society. I believed that anything which the UNHCR could deliver to improve their material status would also help to ameliorate their psycholog­ical trauma.

I also believed it essential to introduce more systematic and lasting measures to prevent further attacks, to provide long-term assistance to those who fall victims of such violence, and to strengthen the skills and capacity of the police force to deal with rape cases.

Accordingly, the UNHCR set up a multi-faceted project initially called Women Victims of Violence, which encompassed a variety of activities and interventions. Perhaps the most important was the counselling programme. ‘Counselling’ is perhaps an inaccurate word to describe the process set up to assist rape survivors in the camps, since it may suggest a particular style of support derived from western psychiatry. ‘Guidance’ may be more appropriate, since the service aimed to make the survivors aware of the assistance they were entitled to in the camps. The counsellors were Somali social workers, counselling was done in the presence of family members, and the survivors were encouraged to use traditional healing systems such as the recitation of specific Koranic verses over their bodies, and rituals such as spirit possession (zar).

An aim of these sessions was to create space for the women to begin to talk about their experience. Contrary to western perceptions about Muslim societies’ reluctance to discuss sexual matters, Somali women have shown themselves extremely anxious to talk about their ordeals. These sessions were generally the most emotional and traumatic for the women, especially for the Barawe and Bajuni women from Hatimy and Jomvu camps (originally from coastal towns of southern Somalia such as Brava and Kismayo, and from islands off Kismayo) who had traditionally led a secluded life and who had never before had a public voice. Counselling often provided women with an opportunity to express their feelings and expecta­tions for the first time, in a society which often prefers to suppress their tragedy, blaming the victim for her calamity rather than helping her cope with it.

Replacing clothing was an important psychological support as many women who had been raped, too poor to obtain new clothes,

were forced to continue wearing the same clothes in which they had been raped. For most this was a source of severe psychological trauma, the clothes serving as a constant reminder of their ordeal. Some reported that, even after washing their clothes repeatedly, they could still smell the body odour and semen of their attackers. Similarly, others stated that by not being able to change their clothes, they were in a perpetual state of ritual impurity and thus unable to perform religious duties such as their daily prayers.

The UNHCR sought to help empower women by encouraging them to report cases of sexual assault to the UNHCR, and thence to the Kenyan police. Such encouragement, combined, in many cases, with legal action by the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), did much to help women give voice to their predicament and give them hope that something can be done to alleviate their plight. The project also attempted to improve women’s economic conditions by providing them with skills and opportunities to undertake income­generating activities such as handicraft production. Engagement in such activities contributes to the mental rehabilitation of rape survivors as well as increasing their economic welfare. Over time this became a major component of the project.

The UNHCR provided practical support to raped women in the form of referral to medical practitioners. Most women interviewed still bore the scars of knife or bullet wounds. Ongoing medical problems included miscarriages among women raped while pregnant; haemorrhaging; inability to control urination; mutilation of the female genitalia; venereal diseases; and insomnia. Where appropriate, women were transferred to another camp, or to another section within the same camp, where they felt more secure or had relatives. The project provided essential items such as blankets, clothes, kitchen utensils, tents and jerry cans for water, to replace those lost during the incidents.

The project also introduced a number of preventive and awareness­raising measures including improving camp security, strengthening the capacity of the Kenyan police in terms of equipment and specialist staff (including female case workers), human rights training for staff of agencies and for police working in the camps, and a training manual on refugee rights for the Kenyan authorities.

The UNHCR’s interventions had some problems, among them the title ‘Women Victims of Violence’, which further stigmatised women victims and deterred some from coming forward for assistance. But an immediate consequence of the project’s activities was a dramatic reduction in the number of rape incidents, dropping from an average of 26 cases each month during the first three months of the project (October-December 1993) to nine per month in the following seven months.

The project also played a crucial role in raising the general level of awareness about sexual assault within the refugee camp system in Kenya, not only within the camps but also on a wider scale among members of both national and international communities. The project was able to communicate the existing crisis within the camps to non-governmental and governmental agencies, journalists, and international human rights organisations, consistently highlighting the continuing security problems surrounding the camps – to which women living in them were particularly vulnerable.

Many rape survivors were helped to cope with rape. They were able to receive counselling as well as material and medical assistance. Channels were established whereby they could report incidents to the proper authorities, which helped them to realise for the first time that they could do something about their situation. It provided many with the opportunity and the means to bring their plight to the attention of the wider world by allowing them to speak unhindered to journalists and human rights activists.

Refugee elders were encouraged to become aware of the problem of rape in the camps and to manifest their concern over it. In the beginning, refugee elders showed little concern about the sexual violence taking place in the camps but over time this attitude changed and they became an important component in the prevention and treatment of rape in the camps. Among the roles elders played were mobilising refugees to plant live fencing around the camp and supporting violated women to report their experiences to the police or the UNHCR, and advise them on how to preserve evidence that could support their claims of rape.