Empowering and restoring dignity to vulnerable girls in refugee camps in Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe—“[Sanitary] pads are not available at tuckshops in the [refugee] camp and on the few occasions that they are available, we do not have the money to buy them. Sometimes we miss school and do not leave our homes because we cannot freely walk around without the appropriate sanitary towels.”

Teenaged girls at Tongogara Refugee Camp at a discussion sensitizing them on gender-based violence
© UNFPA Zimbabwe/Jesilyn Dendere

These are the words of a 16-year-old refugee from Burundi. She was responding to the distribution by UNFPA of more than 300 dignity kits to girls of school-going age (12 to 17 years) at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge, where close to 10,000 refugees now reside.

“This distribution is a big thing to us, because for us young girls, pads are very important,” the 16-year-old girl said.

Each kit has five packets of sanitary pads, each of which contain 10 pads, five tablets of bath soap and a wrap.

Teaching girls about gender-based violence

In April, as part of the Zero Tolerance for GBV 365 Programme and with the support of the governments of Ireland and Sweden, UNFPA and UNHCR reached out to a group of girls with a sensitization session on gender-based violence (GBV).

Dr. Esther Muia, UNFPA Representative for Zimbabwe, welcomed the collaboration with UNHCR to meet the needs of girls at the camp. “It is commendable that UNHCR is doing the best it can to address the sexual and reproductive health and rights needs of these young girls in the camp by partnering with various organizations. UNFPA is happy to have been able to help address some of the girls’ needs.”

Dignity kits are a mitigation strategy for exposure to gender-based violence in emergency contexts, such as refugee camps. Here, disrupted community structures and limited availability of personal items can lead to negative coping strategies, such as transactional sex and early marriage, which can lead to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and teenage pregnancies,” she said.

Menstruation as a taboo

Traditionally in Africa, when a girl starts menstruating she is considered to be a woman. Yet menstrual periods are often kept a secret and are treated as taboo, which forces adolescent girls to continue with their lives as though no change to their bodies has taken place.

While this is easier to do in normal settings, the same cannot be said for humanitarian settings. When people leave their homes in haste to avoid conflict or disasters, they often flee without their personal belongings, which for women and girls usually includes basic essentials such as sanitary towels, panties, soap and other hygiene materials.

In temporary settlements, for refugees life is a daily struggle. For girls and women, the physiological phases related to their sexuality, such as menstruation, sex and childbirth, bring challenges that can be life threatening. Often, the obstacles they face to reproductive health are not as a result of choice but coercion: the threat of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a reality for vulnerable girls and women in settlements.

In these difficult conditions, more often than not there is a lack of privacy, denying displaced people their dignity. This is exacerbated by the lack of access to basic sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information and services. It often leads to women and girls engaging in negative coping strategies, which means higher risk of and exposure to SGBV.

This is the situation for many girls at Tongogara Refugee Camp.

Addressing the needs of women and girls in settlements

In 2015, UNFPA focused on strengthening emergency obstetric care and addressing the SRHR needs of women and girls at the camp.

In 2017, in conjunction with sister agency United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a rapid assessment was conducted in the camp. The focus was on understanding women and girls’ SRHR needs and their risk of exposure to SGBV in the camp.

During the assessment, girls between the ages of 8 and 18 years indicated that they did not have the necessary privacy when they were bathing, forcing them to borrow wrappers from their mothers or simply undress and bath in the nude. This made them feel unsafe and easy targets for SGBV.

On the basis of this assessment, UNFPA conducted a GBV sensitization session with targeted girls at the camp, using the Sista2Sista programme concept in which adolescent girls meet and share information on key issues such as SRHR.

Sharing information on sexual and reproductive health

The girls spent a greater part of their day discussing issues such as types of SGBV (identification of good, confusing and bad touches), perpetrators of SGBV (including members of the community, family members, friends and teachers) and the referral pathway for GBV reporting (including health facilities, police stations and key community leaders).

They also discussed the issue of early marriage and its negative consequences for their personal development. The girls were highly interactive and their conversations demonstrated an understanding of the importance of education and the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy for their sexual and reproductive health.

They were pleased with the dignity kits they received.

A sixth form student from the Democratic Republic of Congo expressed gratitude that she would not have to use old cloths any more.

“I am happy that UNFPA has chosen to give us these essential kits to help us as young girls,” she said with a smile. “The pads will be really helpful as several young girls here in the camp normally use rags and it is not good. I am confident that these kits will greatly improve our hygiene.”

– Jesilyn Dendere, with additional reporting by Verena Bruno, UNFPA Zimbabwe GBV Coordinator

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