Safe at last

Safe at last

The principle of a ‘safe space’ for women is fundamental to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). In Rhino Camp, northern Uganda, they are putting it into practice with remarkable results.

Story by Richard Chambers / Photos by Rebecca Walker

Countless South Sudanese women are victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) but are, understandably, unwilling to speak openly about their experiences. Many are also unable to read or write, so DRC personnel face an uphill struggle to help female refugees rebuild their lives.

The Livelihood Protection Shelter is an open-sided structure which provides a safe space where women can meet, twice a week, to begin the slow healing process. It’s a first step on a long road to physical, mental and spiritual recovery.

Ladies in the Livelihood Protection Shelter in Rhino Camp, Uganda

The women built the Shelter with their own hands.

Female independence

This simple act of creating something new helps enormously in rebuilding self-esteem. DRC also provides raw materials which are turned into goods and services – fabrics for painting, beads for jewellery and hairdresser dummies for braiding.

Beadwork and bedsheets

The grip of SGBV on a community is linked directly to men’s ability to ‘buy’ women who have no income of their own. Leaving a violent husband or partner is practically impossible if he has sole control of the money.

The sale of decorated bedsheets, bangles and handbags enables women to make enough money to keep them independent from the type of men who seek to dominate them. 

In addition to craft work, counselling is available for those ready to speak about their experiences – the first step in the process of rehabilitation.

But, the need is great for a more robust shelter with secure storage, a wider variety of materials, basic furniture and a training centre for mentors and counsellors.

'God' examples

Regina SaimaRegina Saima is married with eight children.

In 2016, when her home town of Yei was overrun by the civil war, she and her family fled to the bush. The meagre ‘food’ available there soon ran out and her family had to seek sanctuary in a foreign country.

Regina's husband frequently abused her when under the influence of alcohol.

However, meeting many more wives and mothers at Rhino Camp with similar stories to tell – and solutions to recommend – enabled Regina to confront her husband.

He is now a Christian and regularly accompanies Regina to church! 

‘My husband listened to me because my friends at the safe space gave me 'God' examples of how to talk to him about his actions,’ she confides. ‘I also feel I am a better person because of what we’ve been through.’

Part of the solution

Men are responsible for more than 97% of SGBV incidents. For this misery to end, changing men's attitudes to women is crucial.

DRC identifies positive male role models and recruits them to train in SGBV prevention. They are encouraged to spread the message of non-violence to other men, challenging cultural practices and reporting incidents.

This year, it’s hoped the number of male trainees will double to 180.

Rebirth of a nation

In addition to this systematic rehabilitation programme, small-scale economic rebirth has begun. Enterprise grants are available at Rhino Camp and DRC assists people in constructing viable business cases to
secure potentially life-changing funds.

Awule Richard, Nurse in Rhino CampCertified nurse Awule Richard, another former Yei resident, now owns a kiosk-sized shop selling Red Cross approved medicines. Next door, there’s a treatment bed and some surgical instruments – stethoscope, syringes, tongs and a microscope.

These few precious tools enable Awule to perform basic diagnoses before referring patients to the Red Cross for more complex procedures.

The number of these shops is increasing. With further investment opportunities now available, a local economy is starting to grow. These enterprise grants are a major boost for refugees trying to move from an existence
controlled by aid to lives with a far greater degree of self-determination.

Regina’s daughter owns a similar kiosk providing groceries, sweets and bottled drinks. Teenagers like her stand at the forefront of this grass-roots rebirth of a country crippled by constant infighting.

Regina's daughter runs a small kiosk

One day, her generation will return to South Sudan with a practical, peaceful alternative to the destruction of the past and present.

It’s a huge task, but one in which MAF is very proud to play a part.