‘Hidden Epidemic’ of Violence Against Refugee Women in Kenya’s COVID Lockdowns
Ayaan Dahir has been a refugee almost all her life. She was born in the port city of Kismayo, Somalia. Before she could speak, a group of young rebels captured her city. Her family sought refuge at the UNHCR’s Dadaab migrant complex in Kenya.
The camp was meant as a temporary solution to house refugees before they could return to Somalia, but few did return. When Dahir was 15, she met an older man from another camp in Dadaab who wanted to marry her and she accepted.
“It was my decision, but I didn’t know him well enough before I married him,” Dahir told VICE World News. According to Dahir, after she had their first child, her husband discovered that she is from a small, dispersed caste often compared to India’s untouchable Dalit. Dahir said that her husband began beating her for not telling him before she had his children.
Dahir went into hiding and found a job as an in-house cleaner with a family, where she slept on a mattress in their kitchen. In the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown, she said her employer crept in the kitchen and onto the mattress. Dahir screamed and when her employer’s mother came down, he told her that he had caught Dahir stealing. His mother told Dahir that if she went to the police, they would kick her out. Nevertheless she still decided to report the incident to police, with her two children, but they asked her for around 5,000 Kenyan shillings (around £34) to hear her case, which she didn’t have. Dahir was suddenly homeless.
Around six months ago, Kenya’s government ordered an investigation into a 25 percent rise in reports of gender-based violence as the country implemented lockdown measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase is almost exclusively from a single government helpline. As a result, many gender-based violence (GBV) workers on the ground say the numbers are higher.
Refugee women in Kenya are particularly vulnerable as many fear deportation if they come forward and are not officially registered or do not have a state ID. As a result, their abuse often goes unreported and unrepresented in government policies, leaving it to grassroots workers to take up the burden of finding a solution.