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Somali Women Bear Superhuman Burden

A Somali woman holds a malnourished child,  while waiting for medical assistance from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), an active regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations. Somalia is the country worst affected by a severe drought that has ravaged large swaths of the Horn of Africa, leaving an estimated 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. (Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price)

United Nations – While the exit of the Al-Qaeda-backed rebel group Al Shabaab has led to the first U.N. relief airlift in five years in the capital of famine-wracked Somalia, the situation for women and children remains precarious, humanitarian workers warn.

“We have heard very sad stories of women having to abandon their children along the way because

they were too weak to carry them,” Andreas Needham, a public information officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Somalia (UNHCR), told IPS.

The latest developments in Mogadishu are a “step in the right direction”, Augustine Mahiga, U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon's envoy to Somalia, said in an e-mailed statement on Aug. 6. “Real security risks, including from terrorist attacks, remain and must not be underestimated.”

Three more areas in southern Somalia were added to the famine zone in the past week, and the U.N. warns that without urgent intervention, all of southern Somalia will be engulfed in famine.

The drought that struck the area was worsened by the presence of the armed militia group, active for almost 20 years. “Many women lost their husbands while fighting, and they're widows now that may find themselves in a worse situation than where they were before,” Needham said.

As Matthew Johnson, a press officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told IPS, “Under Somali culture, women face the extra burden of societal expectations that they bear the primary duty to care for and sustain their families, especially children and the elderly, which is a superhuman burden in times of extreme scarcity and insecurity.”

What has been declared the worst famine in the last 60 years in the area has so far cost the lives of more than 29,000 children and left another 640,000 malnourished.

But dying of starvation is just the tip of the iceberg, one of the many dangers that women and children face on a daily base.

According to Janusz Czerniejewski, head of Intersosa at the Kenya and Somalia Mission, conflict over scarce resources increases during drought, putting women and children at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence.

“As they flee Somalia to safety, women and children are passing through areas where armed groups and bandits roam, only to arrive in crowded and potentially dangerous camps. The protection aspects of this crisis are acute and life-threatening. Gender-based violence (GBV) like rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation is a significant issue in all parts of Somalia,” he told IPS.

A report released by the International Rescue Committee in July showed that violence against women and girls is a serious danger even after they reach the camps, particularly when they must leave to collect firewood or use the forest as a latrine.

Research on sexual violence undertaken by the Protection Monitoring Network (PMN) covering 600 reported cases of rape showed that after a period of six months, 10 percent of the assaulted women committed suicide and 25 percent disappeared.

Johnson said that when many women reach refugee camps, they are forced to assume a role they are not culturally adjusted to, and often lack confidence to perform, as effective heads of the family in the absence of male relatives.

Currently, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF is scaling up operations to meet the rising humanitarian needs of Somali children and families in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya and the surrounding communities.

Somali refugees arrive in Dadaab at an average rate of 1,300 per day. Eighty percent of them are women and children. The total population of the three camps near Dadaab is now more than 400,000, becoming the new third largest city in Kenya.

“Many Somali families who cross into Kenya at Liboi do not realise they must walk another 100 kilometres before arriving at the refugee camps in Dadaab,” said Olivia Yambi, UNICEF Kenya representative.

“The health of some malnourished children crossing at Liboi is so precarious that they simply cannot wait until they get to Dadaab for treatment,” she added.

For that reason, UNICEF has increased supplies of ready-to-use therapeutic food to hospitals and nutrition stabilisation centres in the Dadaab camps and surrounding host communities for the treatment of malnutrition in children under five.

UNICEF has dispatched medicines to existing health centres, including health kits sufficient to support about 10,000 people.

“The positioning of health and nutritional supplies close to the border will save children's lives that might otherwise have been lost on the long journey to Dadaab,” Yambi said.

Over 100,000 children have already been vaccinated thanks to the UNICEF's support to integrated campaigns for measles and polio immunisation in different host camps.

“We are acting now because these diseases can spread very quickly in overcrowded conditions like we have now in the camps,” said Ibrahim Conteh, UNICEF Dadaab emergency coordinator.

In education, UNICEF is planning to construct 146 new learning centres in the outskirts of the camps to accommodate newly-arrived refugees.

UNICEF estimates it will need almost 315 million dollars over the next six months to scale up operations to reach children in the affected areas with emergency and preventative assistance.

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