International Women's Day: Raped girl's education dreams go up in smoke

Telling the Human Story, 7 March 2014

© UNHCR/L.Beck
Three Congolese women lead a group of refugees after their arrival at the Nyakabande Transit Centre in Uganda. Last year, 325 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were reported to UNHCR at the transit centre, with more than 300 of the assaults committed in the DRC.

NYAKABANDE, Uganda, March 7 (UNHCR) Less than two years ago, 16-year-old Florence* was a secondary school student with ambition. That was a rare thing in the lawless and dangerous Masisi region where she and her family lived in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Then it all went horribly wrong. On her way to work in the family's vegetable field after a day at school, she was attacked and raped by a man in uniform as her younger siblings ran home to raise the alarm. She was tested for HIV, but her joy at proving negative was short-lived when she was told that she was pregnant.

"I lost hope when I was told that I was pregnant with a man I didn't know and at such a young age when I was still studying," the teenager old UNHCR in the Nyakabande Transit Centre in south-west Uganda's Kisoro district, where the refugee agency provides shelter, aid and protection to Congolese fleeing across the nearby border with DRC's North Kivu province.

Aside from the trauma of being raped, Florence also faced stigma and persecution from her peers and neighbours after giving birth. UNHCR and its partners have helped her by referring Florence to partners and services that provide special medical and psychosocial treatment.

But the appalling reality is that the young woman is among tens of thousands of people, mostly female but including males, who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence during the recurrent conflict and general lawlessness in eastern DRC, especially North Kivu province, where incidents of rape and sexual abuse remain alarmingly high.

It's a problem that UNHCR and its partners have long highlighted and High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has put a priority on programmes aimed at spreading awareness about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and at responding to and preventing a scourge that has affected an estimated 60 million girls around the world.

In the DRC, according to a 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health, about 1,150 women are raped daily. In North Kivu last year, according to UN figures, 2,094 cases of SGBV were registered, including 1,315 perpetrated against internally displaced people. A total 1,146 were raped.

UNHCR staff at Nyakabande deal with scores of victims like Florence every year, most of whom were assaulted in North Kivu, where they lacked access to live-saving post-rape health services such as PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) kits. Of the 325 SGBV cases reported in Nyakabande last year, 302 occurred in the DRC and 214 were rapes.

But although it is a very serious problem, many victims do not report cases of SGBV because of the stigma attached. "We face a real challenge with getting refugees to report SGBV incidents, especially rape and domestic abuse," said Clarisse Ntampaka, a UNHCR community services officer in southern Uganda.

She added that the agency was "having success through dialogue with refugee leaders and groups of refugees, explaining the laws of Uganda and available services and showing that by reporting these issues they can be addressed and things can change."

UNHCR, with specialist partner agencies, also provides psychological counselling to rape and other SGBV victims at the Nyakabande centre, like Elodie,* another rape survivor who fled to Uganda from her home in eastern DRC after the attack.

Like Florence, she also worried about HIV, but although the test results came back negative, she was finding it difficult to come to terms with the attack by two armed men in her home. "I would rather die than go back to Congo, I hate the men there and fear them," the mother of four young children told UNHCR.

Elodie's life has been full of suffering and loss her first husband disappeared after an attack on their village, during which she was raped for the first time; her second husband died from sickness in his native Rwanda and she was forced to go back to North Kivu.

But beneath her raw pain there is a resilience and strength that is inspiring. She still has dreams for the future despite the horrors of her past. She hopes to stay in Uganda and looks forward to being given a plot of land by the Ugandan government so she can return to farming, a trade she knows well.

Most importantly she prays that her three boys and one girl, and the unborn baby she is carrying, will go to school and build a better future far from the DRC. Education is also on Florence's mind. She was transferred by UNHCR from Nyakabande transit centre to the Rwamwanja settlement, where thousands of Congolese refugees live a relatively normal life. Her dreams seemed to have gone up in smoke, but now she can resume her education with full encouragement from UNHCR and hope for peace.

* Names changed for protection reasons.

By Lucy Beck in Nyakabande, Uganda




A Time Between: Moving on from Internal Displacement in Uganda

This document examines the situation of IDPs in Acholiland in northern Uganda, through the stories of individuals who have lived through conflict and displacement.

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


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

Women in Exile

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

Refugee Women

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.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

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

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video StatementPlay video

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video Statement

The second annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons is being marked on 30 July 2015. To mark this special day, the Principals of eight of the world's key organizations working to tackle this crime have come together to issue a special statement. Together, these eight heads of organizations are urging more to be done to help the millions of women, men and children who fall victim to one of today's most brutal crimes, and to join forces to improve trafficked persons' access to remedies that respond to their individual needs. This video includes statements from the following members of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT): ILO, INTERPOL, IOM, OHCHR, UN Women, UNHCR, UNICRI and UNODC.

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015Play video

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015

The Danish photographer visited UNHCR's work in Colombia and met with women who show great strength and courage in one of the world's most protracted conflict-ridden hot spots.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.