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Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali humanitarian, was honored for her work battling famine, murder, disease, and rape in her native country at the Women in the World Summit, which the conflict at home prevented her from attending. She is pictured here at last year's summit, Marc Bryan-Brown

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Somali women refugees, more hopeful now than ever

Somali women refugees, more hopeful now than ever

Report—Jesuit Refugee Service

Dollo Ado, 16 April 2012 – Everything about the demeanour of the Somali refugees in Melkadida camp who participated in the International Women's Day celebrations last month encapsulated their desire and hope for change.

Melkadida, host to more than 40,000 people, is among the many refugee camps hosting Somali refugees in southeast Ethiopia, on the border with Somalia and Kenya. Thousands of Somalis were forced to flee their homeland because of the deteriorating political and security situation, the absence of a clear state protection, drought, failed harvests, violence and poverty.

It is the women and children who bear the brunt of the failure of the Somali state to protect its citizens. Already disadvantaged in many different ways within Somali society, the continued disintegration of the state only aggravates this experience. Despite the difficulties they continue to face in accessing adequate education and health services, decent housing and sufficient food, the women have demonstrated their ability to cope.

The resilience of Melkadida women

The women's day celebration in Melkadida camp was a clear expression of this resilience. Amidst the daily challenges faced by women refugees, their resilience demonstrates that today's struggles produce a better tomorrow not only for themselves, but for the world over. The day began with women leading a march around the camp, holding banners and placards stating their demands.

One read "Girls should also attend school", and another, "Stop the violence against women". These clear, precise messages, directed especially at the men in the audience, were followed later with speeches by women leaders.

As the activities of the day progressed, the women sang and danced to locally-composed Somali music, and performed dramas. With a strong, clear and united voice, they demanded respect and equal access to services and opportunities. The confidence with which they voiced their demands proves that their daily struggles to improve the lot of women refugees in the camp have not been in vain.

Somali women in Melkadida have become the face of the struggle for others in vulnerable circumstances whose marginalised backgrounds have not stood in their way of demanding change in their treatment, and promoting their real desires, aspirations and dreams for future progress.

As the main breadwinners for their families, women bake food, sell it in the Suka (small shops) and graze goats and sheep. What many believed were the limits to what the women can achieve must now sit back and take notice.

Hope as an engine of renewal

Their ability to adapt to life in different contexts will serve them as they respond to future challenges. Somali women have demonstrated that hope remains the engine of renewal. On International Women's Day, they used their past suffering as an opportunity to press forward and demand changes to a status quo that, today more than ever, continues to threaten the well-being of women. Discrimination in education and the workplace, gender-based violence and disrespect for women's rights remain challenges.

In showing that dignity, respect and peace know no gender and transcend cultural, religious, political, social and ideological boundaries, the Somali women showed that JRS efforts have not been fruitless. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that the change which began as a small seed in the lives of many Somali women may provide a contribution, however tiny, towards fundamental change in the lives of many more.

Godfrey Ogena and Firkite Tarekegn Psychosocial team, Dollo Ado district JRS Ethiopia

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When fire is cried and danger is neigh,
"God and the firemen" is the people's cry;
But when 'tis out and all things righted,
God is forgotten and the firemen slighted.
~Author unknown, from The Fireman's Journal, October 18, 1879


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