Burundian refugee women confront daily violence in Tanzanian refugee camps, Human Rights Watch charges in a new report released today. Wide-spread sexual and domestic abuse have left many of these women physically battered, psychologically traumatized, and fearful for their lives. Although the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken significant steps to address this violence, the international monitoring organization states that the measures are insufficient.
The 151-page report, "Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps," documents unhcr's and the Tanzanian host government's failure to address violence against women refugees in a timely and effective manner, despite ample evidence that women's lives were in danger in their homes and in the general camp community.
It was not until 1999, five years after the establishment of the refugee camps in Tanzania, that unhcr began to address these problems systematically, under pressure from the refugees themselves and after the intervention of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. unhcr was also helped by its receipt of special funds from a U.S.-based philanthropic organization in October 1998 to support programs to combat violence against refugee women in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African countries. "Important lessons must be learned from the mistakes in Tanzania," said Mabuwa. "unhcr and host governments must be proactive in assessing the protection needs of refugee women from the very start of refugee emergencies—they simply cannot wait until the problems reach crisis level."
Together with its implementing partners, unhcr has now initiated programs in the Tanzanian camps. These programs, among other things, raise community awareness about sexual and other gender-based violence and provide counseling for victims of sexual and domestic violence. "While we commend the steps that unhcr is now taking to address violence against women in the camps, there are still critical gaps in its programs," said Mabuwa. "There is a dearth of consistent monitoring, the follow-up to cases is ad-hoc, and unhcr staff roles are still ill-defined."
"The absence of an appropriate policy guiding unhcr staff on how to respond to domestic violence in refugee camps remains a serious problem that has far reaching consequences beyond Tanzania," said LaShawn R. Jefferson, one of the field investigators and deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. At present, the only advice unhcr's guidelines offer its staff is virtually to ignore cases of domestic violence."
Human Rights Watch also criticized the Tanzanian government for its slow response and ineffective efforts to protect women from sexual and domestic violence. As a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which it ratified in 1983, Tanzania is obliged to ensure that its national laws and courts are accessible to refugees. It also has international legal obligations to guarantee women receive equal protection under the law by, among other things, ensuring that police and court officials investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence against refugee women. "We acknowledge that for decades the Tanzanian government has generously opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees from across sub-Saharan Africa, taxing its own limited resources and infrastructure. However, its international legal obligations require it to provide these refugee women with better access to justice than they now have," added Mabuwa.
Despite the existence of laws punishing rape and assault, Tanzanian authorities lack the training, guidance, and resources to enforce those laws. On the one hand, police bias against victims of domestic violence makes it difficult for perpetrators to be held accountable. On the other hand, the courts in the Kibondo, Kasulu, Ngara, and Kigoma districts, where most refugee camps are located, are staffed by personnel who receive no training on how to investigate and adjudicate cases of violence against women.
"Tanzania's poor record on ensuring that the justice system protects refugee women victims of violence is not exclusively a matter of resources, but also a question of political will," said Mabuwa. "Tanzanian authorities should not be allowed to hide their inaction behind the already well-acknowledged problem of insufficient resources. " Tanzanian police officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not regard domestic violence as a crime. Rather than investigate reports of domestic violence, typically police simply referred the victims to unhcr and other organizations for counseling.
Human Rights Watch called for unhcr to ensure that its own guidelines and policies on protecting refugee women from violence are fully implemented and to adopt and implement a policy advising staff on how to intervene in cases of domestic violence. The international monitoring organization also urged the Tanzanian government to ensure that police adequately investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual and domestic violence against refugee women and to discipline police and judicial officials who fail to do so.
Marie-Claire E. fled to Tanzania with her mother, sister, and brother in 1996. Her father was killed in Burundi. She was sixteen years old and living in Mtendeli camp when Human Rights Watch interviewed her in May 1998. She said that she had been on her way to Kanembwa camp with her younger brother on March 30, 1998, in order to visit their uncle, when she was raped by two men who spoke Kiha, a local Tanzanian language. She reported the case to the police the same day, but the police had failed to conduct any investigation by the time that she spoke to Human Rights Watch two months later. She told Human Rights Watch: "The two men took off my clothes, in the presence of my brother. They blindfolded and raped me, one after the other. I would like the assailants to be punished for raping me."