Crawling on the floor, clutching to some toys and occasionally trying to hold on to chairs and pull to a stand, baby Nasir and baby Fathi enjoy the environment in the office, perhaps fascinated by the tiled floor and the roof above them; a far cry from the tent they woke up under.
Sitting by the corner are three young girls. My first instinct is - they too need toys. But no, far from it, Naima and Amina are not your typical children. These are their babies; they are hardened by the harsh realities and have been through so much for children their age. They have been robbed of their childhood.
Located in the north of Garissa County in Kenya, Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp hosting half a million refugees from more than 10 countries, but mainly from neighboring Somalia. Crammed tents, food and water shortages, roadside bombs and abductions targeting government and humanitarian personnel, and violence against women and children are the norm here. What was meant to be a temporary camp for 90,000 refugees has slowly mutated into a permanent, complex and protracted-refugee situation. The story of Dadaab would be incomplete though without mentioning the teenage mothers who have gone through harrowing and plenty times untold experiences in the camps.
A typical day for a girl in Dadaab would include going to school, hanging out with friends, doing homework and household chores, and having leisure time with peers. But for three girls, Amina, Naima and Nimo* all aged below 17 years, their reality is starkly different. They fled Somalia due to a severe drought that claimed their family livestock, and constant threats from the dreaded militia groups who imposed strict rules. Amina was also running from a forced marriage arranged by her uncles. They all arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp during the 2011 influx albeit at different times and through different routes. They hardly expected what they found at the camp; the food rationing, shelter in dilapidated tents that could not stand the scorching heat from the sun and which offered little or no protection from the searing night cold.
Naima and Nimo were lured into early marriage as a way out of poverty. They were both married off to men old enough to be their fathers. “I did not get married to get children; I got married to financially help my single mother take care of my six siblings. But I was wrong, I was cheated and I feel short-changed,’’ says Naima, biting her lower lip, trying to force back tears and stroking her baby’s hair to distract her from the painful memory. After the marriage and the wedding pomp, the bitter truth dawned on her. Their husbands turned violent and blamed them for their misfortunes before finally being deserted. "Every bad thing, every calamity that befell his family would be attributed to me. The beating was so unbearable I sometimes passed-out,’’ Nimo shares, tears welling up in her eyes.
Amina’s story is somewhat different; she is seven months pregnant. She was only in Class Four at Mwangaza Primary School when she was introduced to an old man. He adorned her with gifts before he started making regular calls to her. “He was old and had another wife; he would call me daily and give me some money. We grew closer, one thing led to another and I was shocked when I missed my period. The lab test confirmed my fears and I felt as though the world was coming down on me. I was nervous and numb. I remember crying endlessly,’’ Says Amina.
The story of the three is not unique. Many innocent girls fall prey to these schemes. In patriarchal and male chauvinistic societies like those of communities in Dadaab it is extremely hard to break the news of premarital pregnancy, let alone get support. In the Somali culture there is a reference to women as “children with big feet” that would translate to the seemingly insignificance of women; unfortunately, this is still very rooted today. Her pregnancy brought dispute between her father who wanted her out of the family and her mother who wanted her to stay. She dropped out of school when she could no longer endure the snide remarks and accusing looks of her fellow students. She gradually lost her friends and family members became aggressive towards her save for her mother. All alone and dealing with a judgmental world, Amina is forced to grow up before she is ready. ‘’The complications resulting from the pregnancy such as the morning sickness, and the cravings which no one bothered to assist me to go through nearly killed me’’ says Amina.
Save the Children and social support
Through a project funded by UNHCR and the Bureau for Population and Refugee Migration (BPRM), Save the Children has been running child protection work in Dadaab refugee camps that currently supports 88 girls. Psychosocial support and case management is a flagship approach Save the Children uses to respond to abuse against children. Girls like Naima, Nimo and Amina are provided with counselling services and enrolled in social support networks through the Girl Mothers Support Programme. Those facing hostilities in their homes and families are put in suitable alternative and family based care. They are put on a recovery path and supervised as they go through this healing process. “I was referred to this support group by a friend. At first I was fearful and apprehensive about it, but after several months of rejection, so I decided to give it a shot anyway. It helped not only me but also my then unborn child. Through this support network, I was able to make friends, share my stories and laugh with other girls and above all accept myself. I learnt about pre-natal care and started to access the health facility through referral from our social support group,’’ Says Nimo.