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‘We want justice for these girls’: The Kenyan helpline for victims of gender violence

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Kenyan market vendors practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. World Bank/Sambrian Mbaabu

Around four million girls worldwide suffer female genital mutilation every year. Although it is forbidden in Kenya, COVID-19 has led some families to revive itthe traditional practice, and a UN-supported phone helpline for victims of gender-based violence in the country has seen a big rise in calls since the pandemic hit.

Somewhere in Kenya, an early morning in July: A woman organizes a once-in-a-lifetime “ceremony” for her 11-year-old niece: The girl’s genitals will be cut off as part of her cultural transition into adulthood.

All schools in the country have been closed for months. No classmate will notice the girl’s absence, no teacher will be aware and report the case to the police. The school community cannot protect the girl now.

During the ceremony, the fresh wound starts bleeding heavily. The procedure was performed by a local “cutter,” and there is no anaesthesia and no painkillers. The bleeding doesn’t stop, and, eventually, the family has no choice but to take the girl to the nearest hospital. 

‘I don’t want to see people suffering’

A few hours later, a telephone rings in an office in Nairobi. The phone is connected to the number 1195, the national helpline for gender-based violence. One of the girl’s relatives has called in to report the incident anonymously — she does not want to be considered as a family troublemaker.

“What we want is justice for these girls,” says “Steve,” one of 31 staff in the call centre. (Counsellors interviewed for this article use pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.) After receiving the call, Steve and his colleagues respond immediately. The police are dispatched to search for the mother and aunt, and a safe home is arranged for the girl once she is released from the hospital.

The helpline is staffed 24 hours a day by trained counsellors who stay on the line with callers until help arrives, whether in the form of the police, an ambulance, a village elder, a child protection officer. Counsellors arrange for health care, security, and legal aid. They also spend long hours on the phone, giving psychosocial support to callers in need.

Female genital mutilation or FGM is just one of the reasons people call the hotline. Others include assault, rape, child neglect and defilement, child marriage. The list goes on. “So many cases go unreported,” Steve says. Asked why he works at the call centre, he says simply, “I don’t want to see people suffering”. 

Some calls will break your heart

COVID-19 has aggravated the situation: “Women have been violated like never before,” says Fanis Lisiagali, who heads the 1195 helpline. “We’ve seen women committing suicide, we have heard of women being killed. Both men and women are seriously depressed.” 

Indeed, the number of cases handled by the hotline rose from 86 in February to over 1,100 in June of this year. Cases dropped in July, but the total number of calls is four times higher than during the same period last year. Not all of the callers are women. Around one third of the callers who report psychological violence from their spouses and families are men, saying they have been harassed or abused for failing to provide for the family. 

Sitting at their desks, a half-dozen tele-counsellors are equipped with masks and gloves and are separated by acrylic glass walls. Aside from Swahili and English, they speak other local languages, from Kikuyu to Luhya to Kalenjin; the aim is for callers from everywhere in Kenya to have someone to talk to. 

“You find that psychological problems come up during things people go through every day,” says another counsellor, “June.” In 2009 she became a caregiver with another organization for sexually abused girls and, five years later, she joined the helpline staff.

Some calls will break the heart of even the most experienced counsellor, says June. Earlier this year, she took a call from an 18-year-old woman who had been cast out by her father and then endured an abusive marriage. When she became pregnant and gave birth, her husband rejected her, claiming the baby was crying too much and that it couldn’t possibly be his. Having been disowned for a second time, the woman’s desperation became unbearable. She threw the baby into a pit latrine and ran away. The girl walked into a rescue centre and called the GBV helpline. 

“At first the girl was too shocked to speak. When she finally opened up, what I heard made me completely numb,” says June. She sent the caller to a psychiatrist and his attestation prevented her from being imprisoned. June is still in contact with the young woman, and is helping her build a future. “My job gives me an opportunity to give back to society,” she says. “I cannot always help, but sometimes I have a chance to help in a little way.”

A beacon of hope

The helpline is a beacon especially now during the pandemic. Many rescue centres have to turn away survivors of gender-based violence, as they do not have the resources necessary to quarantine new arrivals for COVID-19.

The helpline was established in 2010 by an organization called Healthcare Assistance Kenya, with the support of UN Women, which is still the NGO’s main partner. It is now also supported by UNFPA, the UN Population Fund. 

“COVID-19 exacerbates the already horrifying levels of sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya,” says Anna Mutavati, UN Women Country Representative. “But the helpline is saving lives. While services like 1195 are fundamental, we need to tackle society’s underlying causes that perpetuate these gross human rights violations and wider gender inequality.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, the helpline has proven its worth and needs to be strengthened, says Healthcare Assistance Kenya director Fanis Lisiagali. “In the coming years,” she says, “I would like to see the helpline known to all communities in all counties throughout Kenya, so that anybody who needs it has a place to turn to”. 

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Africa

‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?

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As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.

Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.

Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.

Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.

This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?

The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.

South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.

Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.

South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed  by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.

If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.

South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying  firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour. 

But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests.  The fighting in Ethiopia will not help. 

As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past? 

Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.

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