The scale of sexual violence against women refugees The exact number of Somali women who were raped in Kenya’s North Eastern Province following their arrival as refugees is not known because until the UNHCR intervention in 1993, women had no incentive to come forward and report what had happened to them. They were also fearful of reprisals by their attackers and reluctant to speak about their ordeal. Based on reported cases, the total number of women raped in the camps is likely to have been in the high hundreds or even thousands.

From February to August 1993 I interviewed and documented reports from 192 survivors of rape or attempted rape in the Kenyan refugee camps. Just over 100 incidents had occurred after the refugees had crossed into Kenya, while 85 had occurred in Somali territory. The age-span of the victims was from four years old to 56. In August 1993 alone 42 additional cases of rape were reported. All of these occurred in the camps in the North Eastern Province, in the Dadaab area. The majority of attacks in Kenya were attributed to armed Somali-speaking bandits or shifta,10 who would have included both Somali nationals and Kenyan Somalis. Seven attacks were said to have been committed by members of the Kenyan security forces. Most women attacked by security force personnel refused to report the crime to the authorities for fear of reprisals.

Women say their attackers were usually people they knew,11 that they were well armed, and that they attacked in groups. Some women were forced to submit when militiamen threatened to destroy their homes with their children locked inside. Some were raped inside their own homes in front of their husbands who were forced to watch at gunpoint. Many victims were raped in front of their children and relatives. Sixteen rape survivors whose cases were documented by the UNHCR reported that they had been raped over the body of their dead husband, child, sibling or other relative.

Almost all the attacks were carried out by more than one attacker. Sometimes as many as ten men took part in a gang rape. They would be armed with rifles, grenades, daggers, bayonets, clubs and walking sticks. Some used flashlights when attacking at night to blind their victims. They used physical force against their victims, including hitting with rifle butts on the upper body and the legs; unrelenting fist blows to the head; striking the woman violently when she was lying on the ground; using razor blades, daggers or bayonets to remove the ‘external virginity’ or infibulation of women and girls who had never had sexual relations, often inflicting severe injuries. (See below – ‘Female genital mutilation’)

Women known to have money were tortured to reveal the whereabouts of their assets, their attackers typically cutting parts of their bodies with daggers or bayonets. Some women reported being blindfolded with their hands tied before they were raped. Some were held to the ground by several assailants if they tried to resist. Some attackers even sat on the woman’s head while others raped her.