Fardosa Muse is a much fiercer woman than her small stature implies. As a CARE sexual and gender-based violence officer in the world's largest refugee camp, she has to be. She spends her day listening to other people's nightmares.
Born in Dadaab, Fardosa, 26, grew up in a polygamous family; her father married multiple wives, and had 40 children among them. A fluent English speaker, she studied social science in university and upon returning to her hometown came to work for CARE, where she has spent the past two and a half years in the Dadaab refugee camp.
She is passionate about her work and the people she serves. 'Can you imagine?' she says, a steady gaze in her eyes. 'Being gang raped in the middle of nowhere? This is what women and children are experiencing on their journey from Somalia. Violence against women is a profound health problem for women across the globe.'
Today she visits Sultana,* a 53-year-old grandmother who she met at one of the satellite offices CARE set up in the influx areas of the camps. She is glad to see her as Sultana had been recently relocated from one camp to another. She wants to see how Sultana is settling in.
Sultana greets Fardosa upon her arrival and after a few minutes, she asks the six children in her care (five grandchildren and one other child relative) to go and play. She wants to speak to Fardoza alone. She doesn't want them to have to relive her story.
Sultana gestures to her tent for Fardosa to come in. With Fardosa's help, Sultana was fast-tracked through registration so as to get a more permanent shelter than the initial reception process provides. There is a thin mattress on the floor, also given to her by CARE as part of her fast-tracking. Other than a piece of tattered fabric covering her bed, and a thin cover of red dust, the rest of the tent is bare.
Sultana was living in Dadaab when she heard that the husband of her mentally challenged daughter had been violently killed in Mogadishu. Knowing the struggle her daughter would have raising the children alone, she traveled to Somalia, and once there, turned back, determining to take the six children to a safer, more stable environment. Mid-way through her journey, Sultana was gang raped by seven armed militiamen. When sharing her story with Fardosa, her eyes squint in pain as her hands gesture how she was gagged and bound. When they were through with her, Sultana continued on her way. She had to keep going.
In Somalia and in Dadaab, rape affects survivors in many ways. Because of the severe social stigma associated with rape, many cases go unreported. Women who are violated are shunned by their neighbors and families, divorced by their husbands. For unwed women and girls, rape can mean a solitary life with no chance marriage. There is the risk of HIV/AIDs infection. In Somali communities, Fardosa says, there is no sense of confidentiality. With just thin tent walls separating her from her neighbors, it seems the case is the same in Dadaab. So Sultana tells her story in soft whispers. Having others know what happened to her 'would be a whole set of other problems.'
'It's a challenge just operating in this environment,' Fardosa says. 'A lot of the shame victims feel comes from the community. Here, women are the lesser sex. Only women that are uncircumcised are considered marriage worthy. Marital rape is a big concern. The work that CARE is doing in Dadaab focuses on providing psychosocial support and rights education as well as doing outreach to men and boys so that survivors can start the healing process and we can start changing what is considered the social norm.'
CARE is supporting newly arrived survivors through counseling and referrals to emergency medical facilities at the reception centers and by providing psychological counseling services in Ifo and Dagahaley. Weekly sessions are being conducted at the new arrival settlement sites, including education on available services within the camp. To date, CARE has provided outreach activities to approximately 8,200 new arrivals with information on violence prevention and where/how to get help. CARE is also providing information through 'road shows' put on by Community Participatory Education Theatre groups. Reported cases of gender-based violence in the camps have significantly increased since the onset of the crisis, although most violations still remain unreported.
Fardosa's visit with Sultana comes to an end. 'I still have horrific nightmares,' Sultana tells Fardosa. 'But because of counseling provided by CARE, I am healing.'
Fardosa stands and brushes off the red dirt from her clothes. She steps outside and once the children see their grandmother's meeting is over, they run back from a neighbor's tent, laughing and chasing each other in child-like play.
'Rape is not only a violation of the law,' Fardosa says as she walks back towards the car. 'It's also a violation of humanity.'
She is now on to her next client. There are countless more waiting.
*Name Changed to protect identity