By Agatha Mugo & Mary Muia, CARE International in Kenya
Adey Ali Dahir arrives 16 minutes early for her interview. Punctual as usual.
She is more commonly known here as Mama Adey, and the 70-year-old woman walks into the office with steady, delicate steps full of confidence. Through my translator, I tell her that we wish to hear her story, given the years she has spent working to prevent violence against women and girls in her community.
She smiles and agrees, but first she must know if CARE?s team was able to help an 18-year-old girl who was forced to marry a much older man. The case was referred to us by Mama Adey and we tell her we had been successful in working with religious leaders to have the girl separated from the man and allowed to return to school.
Mama Adey sighs in gratitude and shakes her head, wondering aloud when the community will ever embrace human rights and protect women and girls from violence. A cause she had been committed to at the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya for more than twenty years.
Mama Adey was born in Buale, Somalia, in a family of nine with three sisters and four brothers. Although her family wasn?t rich, she grew up happy. She never met her parents, who died when she was small. She was raised under the care of her grandparents whom she regards highly, stating that they were good to her and ensured she got everything she needed.
In particular, Mama Adey admired her grandfather?s honesty, ability to keep promises and respect for her grandmother. He was very protective of his wife and all female members in the family and in the community at large. Her grandfather also taught her the importance of being open and speaking out whenever offended.
?As a young girl, I was very strict about upholding my dignity and no man joked around with me? she adds.
She attributes her courage in facing people and sharing her mind to lessons learned from her grandfather.
Like many girls in her community, she married young, at 14 years of age. She says she was very beautiful as a young girl. Her name Adey means ?white? and, as the name suggests, she is light-skinned and many people confused her for an Arab due to her complexion.
People would surround her because of her fair looks, she laughs at the memory. For this reason she had to get married, to keep off the numerous suitors.
At the time, in her Somali culture, she explains that parents play the role of choosing husbands for their daughters and there is usually no negotiation about it. However, as her parents were departed, she had a chance to choose a husband of her choice.
She finally settled on a middle-aged man whom she further describes as one who was responsible and always kept his promises, he was very open and made her the custodian of all his riches and wealth and never hurt her. They lived happily together for 15 years until he died when she was 29 with seven children.
?He treated me like a queen and never jumped over the fence,? she adds in fond memory and we all laugh at her last statement.
Somalia was beautiful, she recalls. Children played with freedom, there was plenty of food and people lived happily. But everything changed when the government collapsed and war broke. She was about 30 years of age and says that for the first time in her life she felt desperate.
Life was terribly bad and it seemed each day grew worse. People were shot and property looted by the militia men. Everyone, militia and civilians alike were armed with guns. The country was in total war and life was filled with fear.
Whenever there is war, women and children suffer most and this is what happened to them, she says. Most strong men got involved in the fighting, leaving women and children behind. People started running away from Somalia in search of refuge, but she persevered in the war-torn country for a year.
Life became unbearable within her town and together with her seven children and a few others they ran into the forest for safety. By that time, her children were still very young with the eldest at around 17. They mostly settled near the river for easy access to water and lived apart to avoid mass attacks and only came together when they set out to look for food or firewood.
The fighting took place in shifts where timings of attacks differed from one town to the other. Whenever the nearest town would be declared safe by informants, those who could walk fast would dash for food at night escorted by a few men and get back to the forest as quickly as possible. Men would hide not far away from their families in the forest, but never lived together with women and children to avoid attacks.
In the forest, they were between two fighting groups and were always cautious of stray bullets. People were still running away to Kenya for refuge and she too decided to take refuge for fear of her children?s lives in the forest. They trekked for several days with a large group of people. They did not have much to carry from the forest, but fortunately there was rain, which allowed them to eat wild fruits in the bushes before they got to the next town where they could find food. On the way she sold various small things she had, including her golden earrings to get food for her children.
When they reached a place called Tabto, they found agencies that were assisting people in flight including giving them food. It took her five days following the agencies? help to reach the Kenyan border where they got registered and ferried to Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, a community in northeast Kenya, which would eventually become home to one of the largest populations of refugees in the world.
This was in 1992. Mama Adey has lived here ever since.
At that time, the camp was not as developed as it is today and there were relatively few people. However, there was enough help from agencies with food and other material support. The local community was also very welcoming and even allowed them to cut trees to put up houses.
However, at night, there was no security and bandits walked around with guns. They would disturb the community members including raping women and girls and no one dared report for fear of being killed.
Women and girls experienced various challenges such as female genital cutting (FGC), early and forced marriage, and were misused by men and later deserted after getting pregnant. Among all these issues, the major problem was rape, which was rampant harming girls as young as 10 and women into their seventies.
For Mama Adey, it was too painful seeing women and girls suffer and she wished that something urgent be done.
During this time, CARE?s Gender and Development (GAD) unit assisted in responding to rape cases, including educating refugees on the effects of female genital cutting, early and forced marriage, and ways to report incidents.
?When I understood the work CARE GAD was doing, I was hopeful and felt a great sense of relief. I managed to mobilize 14 people and we approached CARE GAD together to seek how they could assist the community in eliminating rape and FGC,? she says.
After the first discussion, they were invited for another meeting where CARE had mobilized the police and other staff. They agreed to work together with agencies as a group representing the community, which they named as the ?Committee against Violence (CAV).? The group was left open for anyone willing to join and effect positive change within the community.
The 14 volunteers ? seven women and seven men ? became the first members of the CAV, with one Sheikh Rashid and Mama Adey chosen as the leaders. The role of the group was to identify cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) within the community and refer them to the office as well as educating the community on preventing this form of violence.
One of the tactics they used was to have every member of the group, both men and women alike, dress like women and patrol the community day and night to ensure that no woman or girl was raped. They also escorted women as they went to look for firewood in the bushes and encouraged community members, especially women, to travel in groups when out on these walks.
It was an approach that proved successful. Mama Adey recalls an instance where one of the male CAV members, dressed like a woman, had escorted three women to collect firewood in the bush when an assailant tried to rape one, only to realize that he attacked a man who was able to subdue him and had him taken to the police.
The CAV community support group became well known for the work its members were doing and received a lot of support from the community, including the youth who followed the group?s recommendations to assist in ending rape in the camp.
Mama Adey can cite so many examples of the committee?s achievements, but she remains haunted by those shocking attacks that still occurred.
She recalls one woman who drifted away from a group who were out collecting firewood. Five armed men attacked her. When they finally left, a man with the CAV team came to help the unconscious woman, putting her on a donkey cart to carry her back to the camp.
As they headed back, the owner of the cart went ahead and told Mama Adey what had happened. Together with a few other community members, she rushed towards the woman.
The lady was in bad condition and it was later determined she became pregnant from the ordeal. Mama Adey sheds tears and pauses for a moment telling the story.
The woman was taken to a hospital and a statement later given to police. CARE?s team assisted her with counselling and support for her and the child. Unfortunately, the perpetrators were never found.
Nevertheless, despite such traumatic ordeals, thanks to the efforts of the Committee Against Violence together with various agencies, CARE staff and police, the camp started becoming safer and cases of rape went down.
Today, Mama Adey says that she is happy that after a long struggle, sexual and gender-based violence has diminished and thanks CARE for its good work with the community.
Still, she encourages her community to continue to protect the rights of women and girls and says she will continue to empower community members to end all forms of violence and mentor both men and women towards peaceful living together.
In April 2015, Mama Adey will receive the Women?s Refugee Commission?s 2015 Voices of Change award in a special presentation in New York City. CARE International in Kenya nominated her for this award to recognize her years of service to prevent gender-based violence in Dadaab.