UNHCR helps Somali women find work and security in Baidoa

News Stories, 1 September 2008

© UNHCR/A.Albadri
A group of displaced Somali women take part in a livelihoods project supported by UNHCR.

BAIDOA, Somalia, September 1 (UNHCR) When Khadra's* husband fell sick, she became the sole breadwinner in her family. As an internally displaced person (IDP) who fled Mogadishu a year ago, work opportunities were few and she had to resort to the risky occupation of collecting firewood.

"I had to walk 10 kilometres out of town every day with my two young daughters. We would collect firewood and sell it for 30,000 Somali shillings (about $US 1)," she told UNHCR in Baidoa, some 230 kilometres north-west of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, adding that this income was not enough to provide for the family.

The job also put Khadra and her daughters in considerable danger. "I was chased once by several armed men. That time we were able to escape, but at other times some of my friends were raped," she said. Khadra decided it was not worth risking her life and started to look for less dangerous, but even less lucrative menial work.

Her dilemma is one shared by thousands of other displaced women in Somalia, who must struggle to find a livelihood cleaning clothes, collecting waste and even prostitution in some cases simply to keep themselves and their dependants alive. Many continue to take the risk of collecting wood.

But amid the misery and the bleak political situation in Somalia, where fighting last year between the government and rebel fighters forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes in Mogadishu, the UN refugee agency and its local and international partners have been running projects that help breadwinners like Khadra to earn a living without risking their lives or being exploited.

UNHCR grants have been given to a small number of women in Baidoa and in areas closer to Mogadishu to help them start micro-businesses, such as selling fruit or vegetables. As they no longer have to beg or suffer exploitation, they feel their dignity has been restored and they start to believe in a better future.

"Since I no longer have to collect firewood, I feel more secure and, more importantly, I no longer fear for my two daughters," said Khadra, now a petty trader thanks to the grant she received in a project being implemented for UNHCR by the Bay Women's Development Network, a Somali aid agency. "I am less worried now, because I will be able to provide for my children, including the baby I am expecting," she added.

UNHCR plans to expand such "protection through livelihoods" programmes, with more emphasis on participation of the women themselves. They will be able to advise on the kinds of small businesses they wish to start, and help to establish mechanisms for reporting any risk of abuse.

But for the time being, most displaced women will continue to risk their health and safety doing dangerous and back-breaking labour. "I have felt sick ever since I began collecting garbage," said another displaced Somali, Hoda,* who has to store the waste outside her meagre shelter. Her youngest child has also become ill.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Alexander Tyler and Catherine Weibel in Baidoa, Somalia