UNFPA reaches out to vulnerable girls at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge

17 April 2018
Handover of dignity kits a Tongogara refugee camp

Harare, Zimbabwe, 17 April, 2018 - Traditionally, in Africa, when a young girl starts her menstrual periods, she is considered a woman. While it is considered a milestone, a jump from childhood to adulthood, menstrual periods are often kept a secret, treated as taboo, forcing women and adolescent girls to continue with their lives as though no change has taken place. While this is easier to do in normal settings the same cannot be said in humanitarian settings. When people leave in haste often without their personal belongings, which for women and girls means basic essentials such as sanitary towels, panties, soap and other hygiene materials.

In the temporary settlements for refugees, life goes on and the physiological phases related to their sexuality such as menstruation, sex, childbirth will continue by choice and quite often not voluntarily but driven by circumstances, coercion and at times Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV).  In such difficult circumstances, more often than not, there is a lack of privacy, denying the displaced persons their dignity, this made worse by the fact that there is no formal access to basic Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) information and services. This often leads to women and young girls engaging in negative coping strategies that lead to higher risk and exposure to SGBV.

This is the situation for many girls at Tongogara Refugee Camp in Chipinge where close to 10 000 refugees reside.

In 2015, UNFPA focused on strengthening emergency obstetric care and addressing the SRHR needs of women and girls at Tongogara Refugee Camp. In 2017, in cooperation with our sister agency the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a rapid assessment was conducted. The focus was on understanding SRHR needs and the risk of exposure to SGBV for women and girls at the camp. During the assessment, girls between 8 – 18 years indicated that they do not have the necessary privacy when they are bathing forcing them at times to borrow wrappers from their mothers or simply undressing and bathing in the nude. According to the girls, this makes them feel unsafe and easy targets of SGBV. 

On the basis of the assessment results, UNFPA conducted a GBV sensitization session with the targeted girls at the camp using the Sista2Sista programme concept where adolescent girls meet and share information on key issues such as SRHR. They spent a greater part of their day discussing issues such as types of SGBV (identification of good, confusing and bad touches), perpetrators of SGBV (including members of the community, family members, friends, teachers, etc) and the referral pathway for GBV reporting, including health facilities, police stations, key community leaders. They also discussed the issue of early marriage and its negative consequences for their personal development. The girls’ conversations were highly interactive and demonstrated an understanding of the importance of education and the negative SRH consequences of teenage pregnancy.

As part of the Zero Tolerance for GBV 365 Programme, with support from Governments of Ireland and Sweden, UNFPA joined UNHCR in April 2018 to reach out to the girls on a GBV sensitization. Taking advantage of the gathering of the girls, UNFPA distributed over 300 dignity kits to girls of school age (12-17 years) at the camp. Each kit has five packets of sanitary pads- each containing 10 pads, five tablets of bathing soap and a wrapper.  

“This distribution is a big thing to us, because for us young girls, pads are very important,” says a 16-year-old girl originally from Burundi. “The pads are not available at tuckshops in the camp and on the few occasions that they are available, we do not have the money to buy them. Sometimes we miss school and do not leave our homes because we cannot freely walk around without the appropriate sanitary towels.”

Another girl, a sixth form student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said she was grateful as she would not have to use old cloths anymore.

“I am happy that UNFPA has chosen to give us these essential kits to help us as young girls,” she said with a beaming smile on her face. “The pads will be really helpful as several young girls here in the camp normally use rags and it is not good. I am confident that these kits will greatly improve our hygiene.”

UNFPA Zimbabwe Country Representative, Dr. Esther Muia welcomed the great collaboration with UNHCR to meet the needs of young girls at the camp.

“It is very commendable that UNHCR is doing the best it can to address the SRHR needs of these young girls in the camp by partnering with various organisations. UNFPA is happy to have been able to contribute to addressing some of the needs of these young girls that can impact negatively on them,’ said Dr. Muia.

“Dignity kits represent a mitigation strategy for gender based violence exposure in emergency contexts such as the refugee camps, where disrupted community structures and limited availability of personal items can lead to negative coping strategies such as transactional sex and early marriage that lead to sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies.”

By Jesilyn Dendere

(Additional reporting by Verena Bruno, UNFPA Zimbabwe GBV Coordinator)