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UNHCR's Women Victims of Violence Project in Kenya: An Evaluation Summary

Executive Committee Meetings

UNHCR's Women Victims of Violence Project in Kenya: An Evaluation Summary

8 June 1995


1. This review examines the implementation of UNHCR's Women Victims of Violence (WVV) Project in Kenya, launched in October 1993 and to be integrated into the Office's operations in that country in July 1995. It was conducted to draw lessons learnt by UNHCR during this project, and to make recommendations on its replication in other situations where persons of concern to the High Commissioner risk physical assault.

2. The WVV Project was designed as a pilot project, deliberately out of line with UNHCR's policy of integrating (or "mainstreaming") gender issues into its regular activities. The Office chose to implement a set of theme-specific activities in parallel to its regular work to test assumptions, and clarify and reinforce the High Commissioner's efforts to integrate gender-sensitive planning into regular operations.


3. Due to fighting between rival factions in Somalia in January 1991, some 219,000 Somalis had been granted refuge in Kenya by December 1993. As "Operation Restore Hope" gained ground in Somalia, bandits who had traditionally operated along the Somali/Kenyan border struck on the Kenyan side and the refugee camps in Dadaab, in north-eastern Kenya, became a target for their attacks. Through the problem identification process described below, UNHCR learnt of the rape of many refugee women before, during and after their flight into Kenya. This abuse and the extent to which they were being subjected to rape in and around the Dadaab camps were largely unknown to the international human rights community at the time. UNHCR found that, as in many other situations of civil conflict, the rape of Somali women and girls had been used as a weapon of war. In this case, the manifestations of the conflict, if not the origins, are clan-based. Although the attacks are extra-territorial, their cause is largely internal.

4. Over a year into the emergency, enough staff had been deployed to enable UNHCR to recognize a phenomenon with which the organization had significant prior experience. Information on the refugee women's medical condition indicated a serious, gender-specific protection problem.1 Because of the prevailing traditional practice of female genital mutilation in Somalia, which involves sewing up of the genitalia, many of the women and girls attacked had been cut open by their assailants and were consequently forced to seek medical assistance from the camp hospitals. The disturbing number and nature of requests for medical assistance sounded the alarm; the refugees themselves did not.

5. Following a UNHCR field staff investigation, a professional Somali woman rape counsellor was brought in to help UNHCR clarify the problem and conduct a needs assessment. She worked with the refugees and local police to identify cases and determine the causes of the sexual violence and possible preventive measures for the camps.


6. As a result of this needs assessment process, the WVV Project was established with the following objectives:

  • to develop measures for improving physical security in and around the refugee camps to prevent violence;
  • to provide counselling and therapy to treat physical and emotional trauma;
  • to provide material assistance and skills training to enhance the livelihood of rape survivors; and
  • to promote consciousness-raising amongst the public and police on the emotional and physical consequences of rape.

The Project staff include a coordinator, two protection officers and two community services officers who supervise local and refugee workers to help project implementation. Project activities comprised a wide range of inter-related elements, from measures designed to improve physical security, notably the construction of thorn-bush fencing within the camps and the provision of material support to the local police, to community awareness-raising activities, such as the publication of a refugee newsletter and the training of refugee leaders. Rape survivors were assisted through family and individual counselling, legal advice and representation, and relocation or resettlement, where necessary.

7. During 1994, the emphasis of the Project's work shifted towards prevention. The Project's direct protection objectives were complemented by training of implementing partners to allow for its eventual integration into the general programme in July 1995. The impact of the Project's work in the areas of protection and community services is examined below. This has been ground-breaking work, particularly regarding the staff's ability to combine the two disciplines, thereby reinforcing their effectiveness.

8. Previous documents on progress in implementing UNHCR's Policy on Refugee Women reported persistent obstacles to the equitable provision of protection and assistance. It would appear that efforts made to reduce the gender bias in UNHCR's protection and assistance activities may sometimes be diluted by mainstreaming. Officials of one donor country involved in the funding of this project maintain that one reason for supporting a discrete activity like the WVV Project was to focus on the problems, efforts to resolve them and their impact, in the context of a protection situation involving violence against refugee women. Had it not been for the parallel structure created by this project, many of the lessons learnt would have been less apparent, and the resulting recommendations less specifically grounded in applying policy to operations.

A. Protection

1. Achievements

9. The protection work of the Project and other UNHCR collaborating staff is direct, practical and creative. Through the WVV Project, and in collaboration with the refugees and the local police, UNHCR has significantly improved security inside the camps. In the early stages of the Project, an average of 29 rapes were reported monthly, although a significant proportion of these reports were subsequently found to be false. While it is believed that reporting has improved through the Project's information campaign and rape counselling training, the problems of under- and over-reporting of rape remain. Nevertheless, indications suggest a gradual decline in the actual incidence of rape within the camps. The dramatic reduction in bandit attacks on the Dadaab camps following the construction of the thorn-bush fencing has removed one of the major causes of sexual assault within the camps.

10. Material assistance provided to local police has greatly improved their capacity and willingness to confront the bandits, address incidents of sexual violence against refugee women, and treat the survivors with respect. Police dealing directly with the survivors of rape have received training on UNHCR's mandate and the basic tenets of refugee and human rights law relevant to day-to-day camp realities, contributing significantly to the creation of a team spirit between UNHCR and the local police.

11. The protection staff have combined support for refugee initiatives with human rights education through dialogue with heads of family and elders on gender-specific protection problems of the women and girls in their community. The International Federation of Women Lawyers/Kenya, the UNHCR implementing partner in the Kenyan adjudication of cases of violence against women and girls, has provided legal assistance to survivors who choose that option. The cases brought have helped to educate, and keep the problem before the eyes of, the Kenyan authorities. They have also sensitized many refugees to the usefulness of pursuing justice through the courts of their country of asylum, rather than through the traditional form of dispute settlement practised amongst the Somali refugees, which seldom, if ever, benefits the rape survivor.

12. The decision was taken in mid-1994 that WVV Project protection and community services officers should address the protection and psycho-social needs of all refugees, regardless of their sex or the nature of problem raised. Yet the importance attached to the original goals of the Project has allowed its protection officers to apply UNHCR's mandate with a relatively unprecedented degree of gender-neutrality. The freedom to work on one form of gender-specific violence has opened the door to their involvement in other forms, such as domestic violence and early, forced marriage. Refugee girls, unable to escape these isolated camps, have requested UNHCR protection, ostensibly against forced marriage, revealing a challenge which protection officers and concerned refugees girls see as the next step in a process: protection against female genital mutilation and its consequences.

13. UNHCR protection staff involved with the WVV Project have been sensitized to, and generally allowed to act on, the intricate link between protection and assistance. They have been able to work with the challenge and resource of tradition, without attempting to expand the Office's mandate. The regard for UNHCR and the Project that the maintenance of this delicate balance has engendered in the police and the refugees is both patent and constructive.

2. Areas for improvement

14. Project activities such as thorn-bush fencing and training have improved overall security inside the camps and reduced the number of rapes. However, there has been limited improvement of the overwhelmingly gender- and age-specific protection problems occurring outside the camp perimeters. While the rape of refugee women during firewood collection originally alerted the international community to the situation in the Kenyan camps and in turn resulted in generous donor support for the Project, the rape and mutilation of women collecting firewood, and of girls herding goats, continue unabated.

15. While protection staff working with the Project have intervened in individual protection cases which are both gender- and age-specific, there remain a number of serious age-specific protection problems within the camps, notably early, forced marriages and female genital mutilation. Dadaab sub-office reports indicate that the rights of refugee children are increasingly being violated. Such issues have yet to receive the systematic attention that women's rights have in the WVV Project's efforts to discuss with and educate the community and its leaders.

16. UNHCR has gained considerable experience with problems which can occur to victims of sexual violence on return to their country of origin. Yet despite the dread of repatriation expressed by Somali unwed mothers of children conceived as a result of rape in Kenya, and UNHCR's focus on voluntary repatriation as the preferred durable solution, little or no information was available about the reintegration in their country of origin of the few rape survivors who had attempted return.

B. Community services

1. Achievements

17. In accordance with the policy on mainstreaming, the WVV Project community services staff will distance themselves operationally from the specific beneficiaries as the Project is integrated and the implementing partners and trained refugee counsellors take over. However, the community services staff's direct and practical working methods have ensured the gender-sensitive approach and supervision necessary to give legitimacy to a form of community self-management which requires the active participation of women to be effective. In collaboration with its implementing partner in Dadaab, the Project's community services staff has improved and supported the incorporation of women and their needs into the refugee community's decision-making process on issues such as material assistance and security. It has also facilitated the training needed to launch a network of refugee men and women to counsel survivors of rape, accompany them through the procedures necessary to ensure their good health, and assist in the preservation and submission of evidence regarding their attack. The refugee counsellors also assist the survivors and their families - including babies conceived as a result of rape - to live as normal and productive lives as possible, together.

18. Other activities conducted within the community services component of the Project focused on

  • improving the self-esteem of the rape survivor;
  • helping survivors to recreate a support network if the rape has resulted in alienation from the family;
  • enhancing survivors' capacity for economic self-sufficiency; and
  • providing physical space for women to gather in support of each other without fear of identifying or stigmatizing victims, and to seek solutions to gender-specific problems as well as providing child-care.

2. Areas for improvement

19. Project staff indicate that Somali children who survive rape suffer more than the adult women victims but are not provided with the same level of psycho-social support given to adults. Children who have witnessed the rape of a female family member or who have been rejected by the community because of their mother's rape are not given counselling. This contrasts sharply with the counselling and play therapy the WVV Project staff provided recently uprooted Rwandese refugee children in Nairobi in the second half of 1994.

20. A similar disparity exists in providing professional psychological support for trauma victims. To date, no such support has been made available to the Somali rape survivors on the grounds that such treatment would be unjustified given the level of services available to the local population. Yet the Project provided a professional psychologist for this purpose to Rwandese refugees in Nairobi in the latter half of 1994.

21. Many refugees cited abuse of mildly narcotic chat/miraa leaves as the catalyst for much of the domestic and community violence against women and girls in the community. Refugee men, bored and frustrated by extended periods of inactivity and confinement, chew the substance and become aggressive as the effects wear off. Yet no efforts are envisaged to address this problem.

22. UNHCR and WVV Project staff have been made even more keenly aware of the harmful, and sometimes fatal, effects of female genital mutilation by the desperate situation of refugee girls trying to flee these effects, in particular the horrifying medical implications of prior mutilation for rape victims. Yet, to date, no organized effort has been made, through health education, to address the medical implications of this particular violation of the right to personal security.


23. Managers in both the field and at Headquarters contend that because the WVV Project was a Trust Fund, free from the bureaucratic constraints of UNHCR's Annual Programme, the Office could respond flexibility to the refugees' needs and the international community's calls for action. The structure has also allowed the Project to serve as a focus for field testing of UNHCR's Policy and Guidelines on (the Protection of) Refugee Women in a way which facilitates their evaluation. In this sense, the creation of a parallel structure demonstrated foresight on the part of the decision-makers concerned. Moreover, the establishment of a separate set of activities was essential at the time. By 1993, UNHCR had gained considerable understanding of sexual violence, but had little experience in addressing it, particularly in a preventive way.

24. There has been a downside to UNHCR's efforts to prevent and redress sexual violence. The narrowness of the Project's initial focus served to label rape victims and Project staff in the eyes of the refugee community. Fraudulent rape claims arose in the hope of gaining more protection or assistance, including resettlement, even though the last option was available to a very small number of individuals. The subsequent broadening of the scope of both the Project's beneficiaries and activities largely resolved this problem. At the Project's beginning, a separate staffing structure was created which did not lend itself to integration into the work of the Office and obscured reporting lines and responsibility for supervision.

25. In theory, such a parallel structure would not be necessary today. UNHCR now has the knowledge and tools required to deal with similar challenges within the framework of its day-to-day activities. However, while WVV Project staff perceived and personified the links between protection and assistance, they did not receive the level and quality of supervision required to act on these links with the consistency necessary for such a project.

26. The improvements in the operational emergency response system within UNHCR have resulted in the type of emergency management which probably would now permit identifying sexual violence much sooner than was the case in the Kenyan emergency. Furthermore, overall staff awareness of the high risk of sexual violence in situations of uprootedness, and the importance of gender-sensitive planning to efficient implementation, has improved considerably following training in People-Oriented Planning (POP) and exposure to numerous reports on gender-sensitive protection and assistance.

27. In the Kenyan context, however, certain management weaknesses limited the potential of the WVV Project. Project staff did not fit easily within UNHCR's functional hierarchy and traditional division of labour. Staff with little or no UNHCR experience were required to supervise staff often more experienced than themselves. Consequently, reporting lines became confused. Since the Project received little or no pro-active supervision, personality differences undermined some of its components.

28. The Project's implementation suffered from a lack of a sense of ownership among its senior managers and a lack of commitment to its objectives. In some cases there was a reluctance to accept that the protection of refugee women and girls was UNHCR's priority concern in dealing with the Somali refugee population in Kenya. The isolation of the Project and its staff has weakened its potential to influence UNHCR's work in Kenya beyond the date of its integration into general programmes.


29. To ensure consistent and continuing support for equitable protection and assistance through gender-sensitive planning and implementation, UNHCR staff at all levels must understand and accept that the protection of women and girls from gender-based human rights violations is a legitimate and fundamental concern of the Office.

30. Gender-sensitive planning helps not only women and girls, but the community as a whole, while gender-blind planning and implementation, for its part, allows the perpetuation of gender-specific protection problems and inefficient programming.

31. Pro-active measures should be taken to ensure that UNHCR's Policy on Refugee Children (1993) and Guidelines on the Protection and Care of Refugee Children (1994) are applied to the direct and indirect child victims of rape and other forms of violence in and around the refugee camps in Kenya. Protection and rehabilitative measures should be developed to address their specific concerns.

32. To preserve the progress made by the Project after it has been integrated into the general programme, it is recommended that all staff in Kenya who have not already been trained in People-Oriented Planning should participate in a full POP workshop before the end of the year.

33. UNHCR should rotate WVV Project personnel to other duty stations where such gender-sensitive work has yet to be done, as well as to Headquarters to ensure colleagues and other country operations benefit from their experience.

34. In collaboration with the international public health community, UNHCR should design a strategy prevent health and human rights problems of early, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as to alleviate community and family level damage inflicted by substance abuse.

35. In view of the re-entry of other humanitarian organizations into Somalia, UNHCR should establish mechanisms to monitor the protection and psycho-social situation of victims of violence who have repatriated.

36. Until the remaining organizational obstacles to implementing its Policy on Refugee Women have been overcome, UNHCR will continue to be obliged to resort to parallel structures so that staff are free to implement the High Commissioner's mandate in the most effective way possible. It will also be necessary to maintain gender- and age-focused posts to provide the on-the-job training and technical supervision required to ensure UNHCR's non-discriminatory fulfilment of its protection mandate and assistance function. The most effective way to obtain the necessary change in staff behaviour would be the public and pro-active pursuit at the highest levels of UNHCR of its leadership role in the international community's movement toward the equitable protection of refugee women's and children's rights.

37. Since many of the management problems identified implementing this project are common to UNHCR operations in other regions of the world, the High Commissioner should consider the following:

  • mandatory POP training for all staff, at all levels, starting with emergency staff, those on the emergency roster, and those in management positions; and
  • the trial implementation of a system for monitoring staff sensitivity to gender issues.

38. More flexible and effective information management is required so that all staff have direct access to guidelines and directives in cases where a lack of information or concern threatens UNHCR's ability to provide protection and assistance in a diligent, cost-effective and non-discriminatory manner. The Centre for Documentation on Refugees and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Section should collaborate to ensure that key organizational directives and guidelines are available to every staff member from the very beginning of each emergency.


39. The Women Victims of Violence Project in Kenya has shown UNHCR's capacity to give the required attention to the protection and assistance needs of refugee women. It has also illustrated the positive effects of such gender-sensitive work on the welfare of the uprooted population as a whole. If the Project receives the necessary institutional support, it will continue to provide such benefits as it is integrated into UNHCR's regular operations in Kenya. Moreover, the WVV Project has demonstrated the practical relevance of UNHCR's Policy on Refugee Women and the need for continuing work in pursuit of that Policy's goals.

1 See e.g. Note on Certain Aspects of Sexual Violence against Refugee Women (Note on Sexual Violence) (A/AC.96/822, para.22).