Have you ever imagined what internally displaced persons go through? Imagine war breaks out and you flee but have no destination. Imagine the harsh reality of losing your child because of cholera outbreak necessitated by the inhuman conditions in which internally displaced persons live as they run away to safe-areas.
This is the story of Claudine Uwamahoro who ran away from Rwanda during the genocide with nothing on her but hope of finding a better life in another country.
According to the United Nations, women and children form the great majority of refugee populations all over the world and are especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
In refugee camps, they are raped and abused by military and immigration personnel, bandit groups, male refugees and rival ethnic groups. They are also forced into prostitution.
Claudine, 36, recalls the events of 1994 when a civil war broke out in Rwanda.
She was married at the time with one child.
As a result of the war, she was displaced internally, though she did not experience any problem then.
Claudine moved back to her home when the war ended but a tribal war erupted where people were being killed selectively.
Her husband fled to Congo and left her with the child.
Claudine decided to follow her husband but she faced a lot of problems on the way.
She finally arrived at the camp in Congo but the conditions were very bad due to congestion. However, she managed to re-unite with her husband.
“There were so many children who died and every day, they were burying like 62 to 70 people because of the cholera outbreak,” she says.
Claudine and her husband then left Congo in search of other safer places, travelling for over two weeks. They found another camp, which was equally congested. They were however transferred to another location. While in Congo, war broke out in Congo and many people were picked by force.
“When the war broke out I fled to Angola. Because of the war, some people decided to abandon their children on the way. They were just leaving their children behind hoping that somebody will pick them and look after them,” she recalls.
Claudine says the long journey to Angola took a toll on her especially that she were pregnant and developed sores on her feet.
“We didn't have shoes so we had to assemble grass to make something to wear,” she says.
Some of the refugees died of hunger because they could not manage to get food. They arrived in Angola in 1997 and some of them were shot by soldiers. Claudine survived for the second time and decided to stay in that country. Two weeks later, her group was co-opted by some rebels and taken to Loa'o refugee camp in Angola. While there, many children died of kwashiorkor due to poor nutrition.
According to Claudine, war broke out in Angola and they had to flee to Zambia.
Tired and hungry, they reached Mwinilunga. They were then taken to Meheba Refugee Camp where she has been living with her husband to date. She now has six children.
Claudine says she never wants to return to her country because of what she has gone through.
She says she can stay anywhere else but not in Rwanda.
Zambia has been host to thousands of refugees who fled their countries because of war. With the return of peace in some of these countries such as Angola, many people have been repatriated, thanks to the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other stakeholders.
And the fifth regional dialogue with refugee women and girls was held in April with the Zambian government, UNHCR represented by assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller, donors and other stakeholders, re-affirming their commitment to the empowerment of and support to refugee women.
Presentations were held by 10 female refugees from Angola, Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Somalia based in the Meheba and Mayukwayuka settlements and the urban areas.
The 10 represented the view of over 80 women and men who took part in the dialogues held in Lusaka. Discussions centered around 10 central themes, including shelter, health, education, economic self-reliance, violence – in particular sexual and gender-based, women in leadership, legal remedies, individual documentation and sanitary materials.
The idea of the dialogue is aimed at identifying the major protection problems faced by the refugee women and supporting their solutions for improvements which can be achieved by the refugees themselves with the help of UNHCR, the government and the donor community.
An overriding concern expressed by the refugee women is the impunity of perpetrators of crimes, in particular sexual violence and rape.
The number of rapes of children as young as four years and adolescent girls is high and very little is done, they said.
Women fear leaving their children alone at home, or send their girls to the overcrowded schools where protection cannot be guaranteed. Medical care and staff are limited, medication not enough and clinics so far removed that deaths occur as a result.
“There are so many forced teenage pregnancies but there is not enough medical care. Girls die on the way to the clinic simply because their hips are not wide enough,” one refugee said.
Feller expressed concern over the plight of refugee women.
“I am seriously disturbed when I hear these stories and hear of the impunity. If a perpetrator does not get punished it makes the victim a double victim. It is our collective failure that in 2011 there are still women who face these problems on a daily basis. It is everyone's responsibility to empower the refugee women and to provide them with skills which can make them more independent,” said Feller.
Refugees also highlighted their concern about lack of schools.
“Some schools have ninety pupils in one class. Scholarships are rare. Girls drop out early and are forced into early marriages,” one of the refugees said.
The lack of freedom of movement for the refugees was also highlighted.
Urban refugees said they felt constrained by the fact that work permits are linked to identity cards, which makes a refugee unable to live in urban areas as soon as the work permit expires.
Permits were regarded as expensive, and a special plea was made to have self-employment permits made transferable to other members of the family, rather than linked solely to a male head of household so that others in the family could take over in case the father falls ill. Single mothers heading households feel incredibly vulnerable and can hardly make ends meet, having to care for their families, earn an income and survive in a difficult refugee surrounding.
The lack of enough sanitary material or soap to wash material needed during the menstruation period, can confine a woman to the house for a week every month which can seriously impact the family she is expected to support.
“We have one bucket to mop, to wash and to bath and very little soap. How can I prevent myself from getting infections?” one of the women said.
The cessation of refugee status for the refugees from Rwanda and Angola - scheduled for the end of this year - was also raised. While a large number of refugees do wish to return, a smaller group asked the government to be considerate of those with family ties or ‘long stayers' and those with specific concerns about return.
“Cessation is a positive development as no refugee should be a refugee forever. However, those who do not wish to return and have valid reasons, should be considered,” said Feller:
As part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, seven dialogues were held worldwide India, Jordan, Colombia, Uganda, Zambia, Thailand and Finland to learn more about the protection problems of refugee women and to identify attainable solutions.
Zambia was selected in light of its long and generous history with refugees.
“By hosting the dialogues, Zambia leads the way in giving refugee women a voice and empowering them. The Dialogues model is a model we want to duplicate around the world,” Feller said.
While not all challenges faced by the refugees will be solved, all those present at the meeting expressed their commitment to taking the recommendations of the refugees forward to ensure that solutions were found.