International Women's Day: A woman in Namibia provides HIV counselling to her fellow refugees

News Stories, 8 March 2007

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Bibich Bishimba Mwenze, who is providing counselling on HIV testing, says knowing her fellow refugees has been important in establishing the trust needed for her job.

OSIRE REFUGEE CAMP, Namibia, March 8 (UNHCR) With a disease that is both deadly and shrouded in stigma, everyone would like advice from someone they trust. That is the role taken on by Congolese refugee Bibish Bishimba Mwenze.

The appointment of Mwenze late last year after training in the national programme underlined the efforts by the UN refugee agency to combat HIV/AIDS among refugees, who have often come from countries where the rates of infection are far lower than among their neighbours in their present homes.

"For counselling, confidentiality is a big issue; they have to know you. If it was someone who was not a refugee, the language alone would be a problem," said the soft-spoken 29-year-old, who has added Portuguese and English to the French and Swahili she arrived in Namibia with. "If it is someone from outside the camp, they do not come from the same culture."

Mwenze's role-speaking to the community about avoiding HIV and counselling individuals before and after their tests is about to expand. She will now also do the testing, meaning that individuals will no longer have to face a wait of a week before results arrive from a government clinic.

"If we do it here, we will get results in 10 or 15 minutes," said Mwenze, who passed her training with distinction and is now paid by the Namibian Red Cross Society. "We still need to work in the camp so each and everyone will know that testing and counselling is done at the health centre."

Until the refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) started her work, there was no full-time counsellor for HIV/AIDS at the camp, located in a thinly populated area of dry bush land nearly three hours drive from the Namibia capital of Windhoek. The doctor at the refugee camp clinic had limited time to counsel those taking tests and there was no one assigned purely to informing the 6,500 residents of the camp about the disease.

Most residents of Osire came from Angola, immediately north of Namibia. Some 3.7 percent of the adult population in Angola between the ages of 15 and 49 were living with HIV, according to the UNAIDS figures for 2006. The second largest group of refugees at Osire came from the DRC, where 3.2 percent of the adult population were living with HIV.

The refugees of Osire are now in a country where 19.6 percent of the adult population live with HIV.

"Namibia is a high infection country," Mwenze said at the camp clinic. "In our community there is a high poverty rate, some people have lost their parents and there are some kids doing commercial sex work. If people are not informed, they are transmitting it."

Mwenze advises the residents of Osire about safe sexual behaviour and the offer of HIV testing and treatment. Testing is voluntary, but Mwenze has seen a rise in demand since she started her full-time work a few months ago.

"At the beginning when I started, people were not coming," Mwenze said at the small office where she counsels other refugees in private. "Now they are coming from the camp or are referred by the doctor."

Those who test positive are checked to see if they should start the anti-retrovirals (ARV) treatment that Namibia last year made freely available to refugees as wells as its citizens. ARVs are not a cure but delay the onset of AIDS, meaning that treatment is for life. Some 20 refugees from Osire plus five Namibians from nearby presently receive medication at the camp clinic.

Ideally, Mwenze would like to see couples come for testing together. But if one has contracted HIV, anger can destroy any chance for mutual support. The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS and the secrecy it encourages is the biggest challenge facing the camp counsellor as she works with her fellow refugees.

"If you put yourself in the position of someone infected, you can understand they may be blamed, it could lead to divorce," said Mwenze, who three years ago fled rape and murder in her native DRC just as she was to start a teaching career. "It is not easy."

By Jack Redden in Osire Refugee Camp, Namibia




UNHCR country pages

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.

HIV and Reproductive Health

Treatment for HIV and access to comprehensive reproductive health services.

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.