Rehema, a Congolese refugee, had recently arrived at the Kyangwali refugee camp in western Uganda when she went to collect firewood with her aunt. Alone in a forest, two men confronted them.
“They told my aunt, if you want your life [to be spared], you have to leave this girl for us. My aunt said … ‘I’d rather you kill me,’” Rehema says.
The men physically assaulted Rehema’s aunt before sexually assaulting Rehema, who was 18 years old at the time. Strangers found her and helped her return to the refugee camp.
“When that happened to me… we had just arrived,” Rehema says. “We didn’t know the laws of Uganda. It was as if we were in darkness.”
Rehema, now 21, says it was one of the most difficult moments in her life.
1 in 3
women experience gender-based violence during their lifetime
Rehema came to Uganda seeking safety from ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after her parents and some of her siblings were murdered. She’s working on rebuilding her life: She’s tracked down and was reunited with two of her sisters, who she’d thought had died alongside other family members. She takes care of them, making sure they’re attending classes at the camp’s only elementary school. She’s hopeful about attending university in Uganda to become a nurse.
“When my parents were still alive, they would say, ‘You’re our nurse.’ I would really feel very happy because how could they call me a nurse when I’ve not yet even become a nurse?”
In the meantime, Rehema cares for her community in other ways. She volunteers as a gender-based violence (GBV) preventer through CARE Uganda. Alongside other volunteers, she educates refugees at Kyangwali about their rights and options if they’ve experienced or know someone who’s experiencing violence.
We didn’t know the laws of Uganda. It was as if we were in darkness.
“When I go into the field, talk about those cases of GBV, those cases of rape, how to report it, how to manage it, I feel free to talk to people,” she says.
According to the UN, around 20 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 24 in East and Southern Africa reported experiencing sexual violence from an intimate partner. Sexual violence rates are highest in conflict and post-conflict countries, including the DRC and Uganda.
Even after fleeing conflict, women in refugee camps face a “lack of simple security measures” such as the absence of locks on doors and adequate lighting near latrines, according to the UN.
During the coronavirus pandemic, as violence against women surges globally and support becomes difficult to access, refugees face daunting repercussions.
“Those without documentation or those who have lost precarious livelihoods as a result of the economic devastation that COVID-19 has inflicted may be forced into survival sex or child marriages by their families,” says Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Apollo Gabazira, Country Director of CARE Uganda, says women and girls “suffer the most in crises, and are very vulnerable to gender-based violence,” adding that they are increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, CARE Uganda provided in-person support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps.While Uganda faces a lockdown and movement restrictions, CARE Uganda has been granted a humanitarian exemption, allowing staff to travel in and out of the camp as needed. But assistance to survivors is limited and, in some cases, has shifted to phone support.
“We should be there in person, but the truth [during COVID-19] is that won’t always be possible,” he says.