Lives in the Balance: No Time to Waste in the Horn of Africa

The images from the Horn of Africa are haunting. We remember vividly the misery that hung over the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya when we visited in 2008 and 2009. Even then, the camps were overcrowded, underserved and unsafe -- especially for women and girls. Now we read that more than 1,500 Somali drought victims are arriving daily in the Dadaab area. The words "humanitarian crisis" seem insufficient to describe the despair that must permeate a camp built for 90,000 and now home to 440,000. Still others are at risk along the Somali-Ethiopian border. And within Somalia itself, the situation is even more dire.

This is the worst drought in eastern Africa in decades. More than 12 million people in the region are in need of emergency assistance. Some two million children are acutely malnourished; 500,000 children are on the verge of starvation. The United States recently announced additional funding for this emergency. But much more is required to avert greater catastrophe -- the U.N estimates at least another $1.2 billion is needed just for immediate humanitarian needs. Time is of the essence. We need a galvanized international response similar to the outpouring of donations from governments and individuals after the 2004 tsunami in Asia, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 disaster in Japan.

The plight of women and children is of particularly deep concern to us. In this emergency, they represent the vast majority of refugees fleeing drought-ravaged areas. Many are traveling without the protection of any adult males. They walk for days with little food through parched terrain where bandits and armed groups are a constant threat. Humanitarian groups working in the Kenyan camps have received numerous reports of women and adolescent girls raped or robbed on their long exodus from Somalia.

Even when they make it to Kenya, these refugees remain at high risk of sexual attacks and exploitation. Such problems have long plagued Somali women and girls in the overflowing Dadaab camps and now extend to the far less secure areas outside the camps where newly arrived refugees wait for help. These bleak areas lack basic services and have little security or safe spaces for women and girls. Competition for the limited assistance that is available puts the most vulnerable at a frightening disadvantage. Some women and girls may conclude they have no choice but to trade sex for food and other essentials needed for their families.
The international community must move quickly to address the urgent needs for food, firewood or other cooking fuel, shelter, water, security and health care. And the assistance must be provided in ways that serve the most vulnerable and don't expose them to additional risks. This means ensuring that women, girls, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable persons can safely obtain their fair share of assistance. It means stepping up essential health care for pregnant women and newborns, providing adequate medical care and mental health services for survivors of sexual violence, and including basic hygiene and sanitary materials in assistance packages.

It is critical as well to prioritize efforts to prevent violence against women and girls now fleeing Somalia. There are basic activities that can make a real difference but are too often overlooked. Refugee women and girls will be safer, for example, if camps and adjacent areas are better lit and properly patrolled. They will be safer if there are separate latrines for men and women and the latrines have locks. If they have a safe way to cook, women and girls won't have to search each day for scarce firewood in dangerous areas far from the camps where the risk of rape is great.

When women are at risk, their children suffer. When women are unsafe and malnourished, their families are imperiled. That very scenario is playing out before our eyes for millions of women and children in Somalia and in the camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Their only hope lies in a swift and greatly expanded response from the international community, one that prioritizes their protection and assistance needs. The alternative is disastrous.

Samuel Witten is an attorney at Arnold & Porter and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Kristin Wells is an attorney at Patton Boggs and a former Deputy Chief Counsel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Both serve on the board of the Women's Refugee Commission.