Kenya: Celebrating the refugee woman
05 April 2013

A woman asks a question as part of the audience listens keenly during the International Women's Day celebrations held at St. Joseph the Worker Church Hall, Kangemi in Nairobi organised to celebrate refugee women. (Charles Njanga/JRS)
The theme for the day was; ‘a promise is a promise: time to end violence against women’.
Nairobi, 20 March 2013 - There was a palpable sense of excitement at the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Kangemi, Nairobi as women dressed in colourful outfits filed into the hall. The date was Friday 15th March 2013 and although the morning was overcast, the women's colourful outfits brightened the day. The women were from different nationalities including Congolese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Rwandese, Somalis and some Kenyans. They had gathered to celebrate their day, which is the International Women's Day. The theme for the day was; 'a promise is a promise: time to end violence against women'.

The women gathered in the hall were refugees living in Nairobi and its outskirts. There were also representatives from different humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, HIAS, Heshima Kenya, Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). To start off the day, Mark Nzano of UNHCR gave a background of the day and how it originated. He explained that although the day is normally commemorated on 8th March, this year's event had been pushed forward because of the Kenya General elections that were held on 4th March 2013. He ended by saying, "Women are entitled to certain rights just like any other human being".

Messages from humanitarian organisations. Addressing the gathering, Jane Abudho of Heshima Kenya gave a legal talk about gender based violence. She took the audience through the steps one should take in-case they are raped. "It is very important for one to preserve evidence so that the perpetrator can be successfully prosecuted," she said. Abudho also emphasized the need for survivors to report cases of sexual assault saying, "It is very important to speak out."; She assured the women that any information given about such incidents would be treated confidentially.

Also speaking at the occasion, the RCK representative said that women were the pillar of the society. She also reiterated the need to report cases of sexual assault. "Survivors of sexual assault need to break the silence", she added.

The hall then came alive as different women groups took to the stage to perform some traditional dances. The groups included Congolese Banyamulenge community, Somali women, Ethiopian and Eritrean women followed by another Congolese group. The entertainment was brought to a colourful end by a group of Rwandese women. During the performances, the groups were joined on stage by representatives of the humanitarian agencies present who displayed their dancing prowess.

Inspirational stories. The audience also got a chance to hear about the success stories of refugee women in Kenya. Mary* a South Sudanese refugee living in Nairobi narrated to the audience, in a moving testimony, about the challenges she had faced in Kenya. Upon her arrival in Kenya as a girl, she had lost hope and life seemed unbearable. She encouraged women to take up more responsibilities in their families and communities saying, "Women should maintain their integrity even as refugees". Mary called on the women to accept their current situation and not to live in denial.

"I do not want my womanhood to be abused", Mary further said expressing the hope that in future boys and girls, men and women, would enjoy equal rights. She lamented about the traditional roles of South Sudanese women and promised to empower women once she gets back to her home country. According to her, the liberation war of South Sudan had been a blessing as now they have their own country.

Mary went on to narrate how she succeeded in business, initially starting off selling tie and dye materials and moving on to start making peanut butter. The peanut butter she made was sold to organizations such as JRS and UNHCR. Her business had been boosted by a grant from UNHCR that enabled her to purchase a machine for making peanut butter. "I ask women not to be dependent. Please make use of your brains and skills," she said. Her business had also expanded to another project in which she had brought women together to undertake knitting and their products were now being sold overseas. "I was selected from a group of 85 women to tour the United States because of this project," Mary revealed. She concluded by telling the women,"Do not lose hope in life. Be yourself". She urged the women to be respectable and responsible by respecting their children and men.

JRS to the rescue. Veronique* a Congolese woman also gave her testimony and lauded the IWD celebration stating it was an important day for women. She narrated how she had arrived in Kenya in 2002 and had depended on handouts as a refugee. To improve her life, she started selling bananas in rural areas of Kenya. However she had a nasty experience in Voi after being arrested with expired documents and had to call on UNHCR to come to her assistance upon which she was released on to their custody. After being reunited with her children, she had approached JRS for assistance.

"One of the sisters at JRS initially gave me 400 shillings that I used to start a business of selling tea and mandazi (buns)", she told the gathering. Her business had expanded after further assistance from JRS and she started selling cooked beans. "I am now able to pay my house rent and the education of my children", she proudly said. "Women should not lose hope. Come together and form groups where you can engage in income generating activities", she encouraged the women. "The main problem of refugee women is the dependency syndrome", Veronique concluded saying that she had hope that one day they shall overcome the challenges they face as refugees.

Jeane* a Congolese refugee told the audience that she had been engaged in business all her life. She also revealed that she was a single mother of 5 children but was able to support them from her business. "I am now able to pay a house rent of 4,000/- shillings and all my children are in school", she added proudly amid applause from the audience. Jeane however lamented that many refugee women in Nairobi did not have proper documents and hence they were not able to access financial assistance. "Organisations should also extend their assistance to refugee women even without proper documents", she pleaded.

She also revealed that many refugee women face a lot of mental anguish. To counter this, Jeane urged them to join women groups saying, "When one joins a women group, they are able to get advice from other members." She concluded by appealing for capital for women groups.

At the end of the celebrations, all the women present were given colourful scarves with a message about the day. They also received some publications from various humanitarian agencies. All the participants were then treated to a sumptuous lunch. It was evident that despite the situation the women found them in, they had a very positive outlook of life. For them the refugee status was just a temporary situation.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

By Charles Njanga, JRS Eastern Africa Regional Communications Officer

In Nairobi, JRS provides a range of services to new arrivals, asylum seekers and refugees in the most vulnerable circumstances. These services include emergency food and medical assistance, assistance with rent payment, provision of basic non-food items, support for income generation activities, pastoral and psychosocial accompaniment, and educational scholarships for the children of vulnerable refugees.