December 9, 2011 5:04 pm

Zeinab Abdi Ahmed, child protection, Unicef

‘I was at the Somali refugee camp at Dadaab: 10,000 arrived every month’

Zeinab Abdi Ahmed grew up in Wajir district in north-east Kenya. She studied at Loreto Limuru, a convent school near Nairobi founded by Irish sisters, and has worked with CARE Kenya’s Dadaab refugee programme and ActionAid Kenya – two leading international aid agencies. She is married to Abdirahman Khalif, a health officer, and has four children.

I work as a child protection specialist for Unicef, based at Garissa in north-east Kenya, 100km from the Somali refugee camp at Dadaab. This year’s drought brought the greatest challenge to our programming, and I was saddened to see so many Somalis driven to become refugees like their brothers who have made Dadaab a second home for the past 20 years.

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I was in Dadaab in June, at the peak of the refugee influx into the camps. They arrived mainly on foot, exhausted, dehydrated and emaciated from a journey that had taken them up to two months. Some had lost family members due to hunger and thirst; some had been eaten by wild animals. Close to 10,000 refugees arrived every month – including children who had been separated from their families and had trekked along with other families on the move.

In response to the emergency, Unicef established an office in Dadaab. The emergency programmes included counselling, family tracing and re-integration of children, fostering and the establishment of child-friendly spaces, which provide psychosocial support for children.

In July, I took part in the assessment of child protection and education programmes in the area. As satisfying basic needs became a challenge, displaced families were at risk of exploitation and abuse. Parents who were migrating to different parts of the country left their children in the care of relatives and friends, but often the children were left alone to fend for themselves. Many schools in the districts, which had been safe havens for children of migrating parents, were threatened with closure due to lack of water and food. The situation has had a serious impact on the children’s psychological well-being.

At Modogashe primary school, in Lagdera, Garissa district, I interviewed schoolboys who had been separated from their families during the drought. I spoke to two 15-years-olds who had been handed over to the headmaster by their migrating parents. One told me his parents had gone to the Dadaab complex. The other boy said his family had moved from El Dera, in Lagdera, further north to Kom, in Samburu. The boys didn’t know when they would see their loved ones again. About 1,000 children from Modogashe have moved on with their parents in search of pasture and water, abandoning their schooling altogether.

The drought has increased the number of children involved in child labour – collecting scrap metal, working in hotels and homes, fetching water and herding goats. In Gafarsa location, 50km from Garbatulla town, families who could not afford to buy water were forced to trek to the river, 6km from the village.

In all the primary schools we visited during the assessment, teachers reported that children from the neighbouring communities, some of them younger than five years old, come to the schools in search of food during mealtimes and cannot be turned away. Public health reports indicated an increase in the number of children getting ill with diarrhoea due to lack of water and poor hygiene. During our visit to Modogashe primary, 26 girls boarding at the school had not showered or bathed for four days and could not go to class. Luckily, as we left, a water tanker brought water from Gurufa, 70km away.

In August I went back to Dadaab. The situation had improved. Aid agencies had scaled up their interventions. Unicef has posted two child protection staff to work with the children’s department and other charities. The UNHCR funds agencies that support education programmes in the camps – primary, secondary and even college education. Unicef, too, supports NGOs involved in educational programming.

The recommendations of the drought emergency culminated in Unicef and partners piloting Cash Transfer in Emergencies programming in three districts of northern Kenya affected by drought and currently striving to build shattered livelihoods. I feel privileged to be part of this journey to end poverty at household level so as to protect children from exploitation and abuse.

Female genital mutilation is a national issue in Kenya as the majority of communities practise it. As a member of the UNFPA/Unicef/Ministry of Gender/Partners joint programme on accelerating the abandonment of female genital mutilation, I celebrate a remarkable achievement as the year comes to an end – the passing of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, which spells out punitive measures against perpetrators of genital mutilation. This is one bold step to protect girls from FGM. Hooray!

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