Reproductive coercion puts Somali refugee women in the line of fire

Gitonga Njeru – WNN Features

Qurbani campaign in Somalian refugee camps, Eid Al Adha 2011
Some young Somalian refugee women can be exceptionally vulnerable to sexual pressures they receive by their husbands who want them to have children.

(WNN) Garissa, KENYA: Following several weeks of military intervention by the Kenyan Defense Forces against Somali extremist militia groups, Somali women have become easy targets for rape and physical assault. But physical assault can also come from home and can also be psychological.

As some Somalian women stand up to their husbands, crushing violence can follow. Because of this, women of Somalia can face violence both inside and outside the family structure. Conflict in Somalia has also brought women untold violence where personal safety is at a minimum.

“Sexual violence remains intolerably high,” said Mr. Martin Briens Deputy from the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations during a recent formal February 2012 statement to the UN General Assembly. “In many conflicts today, sexual violence is a weapon used to crush individuals and communities. Therefore, these acts of violence are a destabilizing factor and a threat to peace and security… By way of example, hundreds of Somali women refugees have been raped, sometimes in front of their husbands. Conflicts, droughts and massive displacements increase the risk of sexual violence against women and girls.”

But Somali women aren’t only in danger of sexual violence from soldiers involved in armed conflict. Many face  the danger of being on the receiving end of violence at home. As a new backlash is forming against ’empowered’ women as who try to become in control of their pregnancies, violence can increase.

Reproductive coercion can be a common denominator among many refugee women who are forced to bend to psychological and physical demands made by their husbands to have children. With pressure to have one child after another, women can face numerous unwanted pregnancies over and over again. Those women who stand up to the pressure of their husbands are often those who suffer the most.

“There has been an increasing number of cases of physical and sexual abuse by partners towards their Somali spouses. Many of them have been empowered on the importance of birth control and as a result, they have received beatings from their spouses and some [are] even being beaten to death,” said Rukia Subow, Chair of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, one of Kenya’s largest organizations working at the ‘grass-roots’ level that is also strongly dedicated to empowering women.

“The infusion by Kenyan troops into Somalia and [conditions with] some towns being captured by the troops have complicated matters even further,” added Maendeleo ya Wanawake’s chair Subow. “Many refugees continue to run to Kenyan border camps and have become victims of domestic violence launched towards them by their husbands.”

Tension in the border areas between Somalia and Kenya does not help the situation for women. Somalis are considered by a rising number of Kenyans to be a ‘dangerous element’ and ‘extremist.’ Women receive much of the brunt of this discrimination as they represent Somalian culture and family.

With more Somalis looking for refuge in Kenyan camps, towns and cities, it is estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, that there are over 1,400 Somali refugees streaming across the Somalian border into Kenyan refugee camps each day.

“As drought continued to worsen amid the decades-old conflict in Somalia, more than 270,000 people fled the country, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to a staggering 900,000. Another 1.5 million are internally displaced. This means nearly a third of the entire population of Somalia has been forced from their homes. Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti have generously borne the brunt of this mass exodus,” said Commissioner Guterres during the 62nd Session of the United Nations Geneva on October 2011. “The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya, has grown to five times its intended size, housing more than 450,000 people.”

In October 2011, thousands of Kenyan troops were deployed north to Somalia’s Juba Valley to wage war on Al-Shabaab and their supporters. Known as the moving force for ‘Jihad’ and Islamic youth extremism in the region, Al-Shabaab has supported suicide violence and widespread military insurgency in Somalia since 2006.

“Situations were better in Somalia before the invasion of troops into our country,” says 43-year-0ld Somalian native Nalisha Hussein who spoke on increasing problems with domestic violence as conflict in Somalia continued. “I moved to Kenya a few months ago from Somalia with my husband, nine children and other relatives, [and] problems worsened,” she continued.

“I have been getting beaten up by my husbands because he once caught me taking contraceptive inoculations,” outlined Nalisha. “I used to take them without his knowledge. When I decided to tell him and talk of limiting the number of children we have, he began beating me and calling me a prostitute.”

“I stopped taking them recently and I suspect that I am pregnant…,” said Nalisha.

As economic hardships continue to be felt and life situations worsen, refugee family togetherness becomes less important. Food, water and shelter become a priority, shares Nalisha.

“Having unplanned pregnancies only breeds more poverty. What if the kids become thugs?” added Hussein as she posed in a small tented room at the Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya. “My husband always wants more children which he says that children are a blessing and when they become old enough, they can empower both of us economically. I believe it is a wrong perception as you do not know the future.”

Mr. Mohamed Adan 65 lives in the same refugee camp as Nalisha and his views towards birth control use are different. He has four wives and about 35 children.

“Birth control is too western. I do not believe in using such prevention measures. An African man should have as many wives and children. His children should also provide him with several grand children.

“But I do agree that children can be both a blessing and a curse but you have to look at the good side. There are people who cannot have their own children biologically. I also will be very angry if I found out that any of my wives are using contraceptives,” said Adan.

This comes as the United Kingdom government through its funding agencies has pledged to give family planning aid to Kenya. About 15 million Kenyan women are in need of contraceptives. The government will receive a total of $60 million by January 2012 to cater for the prevailing shortage of contraceptive pills.

According to statistics available from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, the average Somali couple has eight children per family compared with the rest of the Kenyan population of only two children per family.

The Kenyans of Somali origin have similar sentiments as their foreign counterparts residing in the country.

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