Domestic abuse adds to Yemeni refugee women’s woes in Djibouti



NGOs and refugees say women can face economic and physical abuse, but fear speaking out due to stigma.

Markazi Refugee Camp, Djibouti – Hafsa* says she feels trapped.

War forced her to flee her home in Yemen to Djibouti with her husband three years ago.

Little opportunities or hope of returning have left her restless in a remote refugee camp more than 200km from Djibouti’s capital and just 32km from Yemen‘s western coast.

The situation has created tension between 36-year-old Hafsa and her husband. But because she is a woman, she says she has no outlet for sharing her struggles.

“Because of the frustrating mood in the camp and bad circumstances and weather and my jobless husband and lack of income overall it is a dispute,” Hafsa tells Al Jazeera from outside the Markazi refugee camp near the fishing village of Obock.

The mother of three, including a daughter from her current marriage and two older children from her first who still live in Yemen, jabs her hand with frustration in the air as she describes her situation.

Her face, outlined by a pearly pink hijab (headscarf), is fair and unlined, making her look younger than her age, but her voice is strained.

“I cannot talk and express my feelings to others because the problems or the dispute between me and husband might become more complicated,” she says.

She adds other refugee women are abused by their husbands, but fear speaking out due to the stigma associated with domestic abuse.

“We are suffering from tradition,” Hafsa says. “Before the war, we were suffering many troubles, many problems from the society itself in Yemen, the people and the pressure from traditions. The war came just to push us out to come to Djibouti, but it is the wrong place,” she adds.

“We feel weak and vulnerable and attackable.”

Hafsa is one of the thousands of Yemenis who have fled to Djibouti during more than in three years of war between Yemen’s government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. To date, more than 40,000 Yemenis have made the treacherous journey across the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait, known as the Gate of Tears because it has claimed so many migrant and refugee lives. It connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden along Djibouti’s eastern coast.

At the peak, there were more than 7,000 Yemenis living in Markazi. As of May 2018, the number had dwindled to just under 2,000, less than half of the total 4,300 Yemenis in Djibouti.

The Markazi refugee camp is located near the fishing village of Obock on Djibouti’s eastern coast [Mallory Moench/Al Jazeera]

The small tent city stained by dust rises from a landscape scorched barren in summer, where temperatures regularly rise to 40 degrees Celcius in summer. UNHCR and Djibouti flags convulse in the hot wind above the gate. Electric spotlights are strung up by rusted wires, but according to those in the camp, the electricity often doesn’t work.

Afraid to report abuse

Refugees tell Al Jazeera the conditions are harsh – with limited money, food, employment or future hope – but for women, they can be even worse.

Aid groups and other NGOs in the camp say women can face economic, physical and even sexual domestic abuse.

There is almost no data on gender-based violence against refugees in Djibouti. UNHCR has no recorded incidents at the camp since it was started in April 2015. The head of the agency in Djibouti said that a recent report from a senior protection officer who interviewed a female resident found there was no sexual gender-based violence except for one instance of sodomy between children.

But professionals and refugees say women must first overcome cultural stigma and fear of repercussions to report violence and abuse.

“There are many cases of violence in the camp that happened, but the women don’t like to complain because they are afraid when they return back to Yemen that nobody would accept them and their children as a divorced woman,” Hafsa says.

A UNHCR report from October 2017 said that despite forming a refugee committee to address gender-based violence, the issue “remains a challenge among the Yemeni refugee community, mainly due to cultural predispositions and frequent appeal to the traditional legal codes instead of civil ones”.

According to Dina Cihimba Rehema, UNHCR’s protection officer in Markazi, the problem lies in the fact that women often feel like they cannot talk about their situations.

“We have to reinforce sensitisation for women to feel free and make it easy for them to talk about what they’re facing,” she says. “We have to try to change the mentality.”

Women taking the lead

Every day, Muna Khalik, another refugee living in Markazi, opens a counselling centre housed in a metal trailer just inside the camp entrance. The centre is run by UNFD, the Djiboutian NGO in charge of women’s protection in the camp. The centre has one staff member and trains and employs refugees like Khalik as counsellors. They intake at least four domestic violence cases each month and report directly to UNFD’s head office.

The organisation said abuse is primarily economic – when the male breadwinner withholds money from his wife and creates tension in the family – but can also be physical or sexual. Their reports are confidential and details about cases could not be shared.

The UNFD-run counselling centre intakes at least four domestic violence cases each month and reports directly to UNFD’s head office [Mallory Moench/Al Jazeera]

Asma Moustapha, Markazi’s director who works for the government refugee agency, said that when the counselling centre first opened three years ago, no women came because of the stigma.

“In their mentality, they think the office is only for divorce matters. They don’t think it can help them and their problems,” Moustapha told Al Jazeera. “Before the husband wouldn’t accept them to go to the office because he thought it will break his marriage and his family.”

Because women feel more comfortable sharing in their own community, UNFD trained refugee women as counsellors.

Khalik has lived in Markazi since she fled her home in the Yemeni city of Taiz, which was destroyed by bombing three years ago. Last year, she began working with UNFD counselling and conducting gender sensitisation activities for men and women.

She sits under a whirring fan inside the community centre where women sew purses to sell and children learn martial arts. Draped in a silken black veil with beaded gloves, Khalik’s sharp eyes emits empathy.

“When we started, especially men, they were not comfortable with those sensitisation activities,” Khalik tells Al Jazeera. “They were feeling that it’s something coming to separate them from their wives because they also think that once women know their rights, they will use it for everything. But with time, they come to understand that it’s something which is helpful for all the community.”

Community workers disseminate national and international text related to sexual violence and conduct outreach awareness sessions with men, women and youth on gender, human rights and sexual violence.

Counsellors at the centre give women options about what to do when facing domestic violence. If the situation is serious and the woman requests more intervention, the counsellor visits the family to talk to the woman’s husband. In the most extreme cases, a counsellor can help a woman go to the justice system – although the management said that no woman has ever requested to do so.

“It was really difficult for women to express and talk about such problems, but it was of culture. But there is a good impact and now they are feeling more free to talk about what is happening,” Khalik says.

She acknowledges, however, that sensitisation is slow and women may still not speak out.

“There are always things that we can’t know about in the families,” she says.

For Markazi’s women, domestic violence is one trouble among many that they say makes life nearly unbearable in the refugee camp.

Many want to resettle in Canada or Sweden or return home to Yemen – even though it is still too dangerous now because of the conflict. As families enter their fourth year in the remote camp with no end in sight, many say they have lost hope.

“We have a vague future here,” Hafsa said. “We feel that we are dying in Djibouti.”

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity. 



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