UNHCR helps Somali women find work and security in Baidoa

News Stories, 1 September 2008

© UNHCR/A.Albadri
A group of displaced Somali women take part in a livelihoods project supported by UNHCR.

BAIDOA, Somalia, September 1 (UNHCR) When Khadra's* husband fell sick, she became the sole breadwinner in her family. As an internally displaced person (IDP) who fled Mogadishu a year ago, work opportunities were few and she had to resort to the risky occupation of collecting firewood.

"I had to walk 10 kilometres out of town every day with my two young daughters. We would collect firewood and sell it for 30,000 Somali shillings (about $US 1)," she told UNHCR in Baidoa, some 230 kilometres north-west of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, adding that this income was not enough to provide for the family.

The job also put Khadra and her daughters in considerable danger. "I was chased once by several armed men. That time we were able to escape, but at other times some of my friends were raped," she said. Khadra decided it was not worth risking her life and started to look for less dangerous, but even less lucrative menial work.

Her dilemma is one shared by thousands of other displaced women in Somalia, who must struggle to find a livelihood cleaning clothes, collecting waste and even prostitution in some cases simply to keep themselves and their dependants alive. Many continue to take the risk of collecting wood.

But amid the misery and the bleak political situation in Somalia, where fighting last year between the government and rebel fighters forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes in Mogadishu, the UN refugee agency and its local and international partners have been running projects that help breadwinners like Khadra to earn a living without risking their lives or being exploited.

UNHCR grants have been given to a small number of women in Baidoa and in areas closer to Mogadishu to help them start micro-businesses, such as selling fruit or vegetables. As they no longer have to beg or suffer exploitation, they feel their dignity has been restored and they start to believe in a better future.

"Since I no longer have to collect firewood, I feel more secure and, more importantly, I no longer fear for my two daughters," said Khadra, now a petty trader thanks to the grant she received in a project being implemented for UNHCR by the Bay Women's Development Network, a Somali aid agency. "I am less worried now, because I will be able to provide for my children, including the baby I am expecting," she added.

UNHCR plans to expand such "protection through livelihoods" programmes, with more emphasis on participation of the women themselves. They will be able to advise on the kinds of small businesses they wish to start, and help to establish mechanisms for reporting any risk of abuse.

But for the time being, most displaced women will continue to risk their health and safety doing dangerous and back-breaking labour. "I have felt sick ever since I began collecting garbage," said another displaced Somali, Hoda,* who has to store the waste outside her meagre shelter. Her youngest child has also become ill.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Alexander Tyler and Catherine Weibel in Baidoa, Somalia




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Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.


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In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

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Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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