Survivors of sexual violence do not find it easy to disclose their ordeal, owing to the stigma and shame they face from fellow community members. (Angela Hellmuth/JRS)
Nairobi, 28 December 2012 – Mary* wept bitterly as she told the JRS social worker about the multiple rapes she had undergone at the hands of her employer's husband and two sons. "I sacrificed my pride to take up work as a housekeeper because it was the only form of livelihood I could find in Nairobi. Since I fled persecution and the killing of my husband in Ethiopia in 2010, I had to find a means of survival. I was desperate, for without the work, my two young daughters and I would be without food or shelter."

Mary said that while her employer was away, the latter's husband and sons would – separately – take turns in sexually molesting her. She endured this abusive behaviour for two months, fearing to lose her only income. When she finally found the courage to tell her employer, she was thrown out under false accusations that she had seduced the men. "I felt so helpless and worthless! I could not believe the accusations, especially from a fellow woman". Mary's only request to JRS was for a listening ear, to help her ease the pain, and re-assurance that her dignity remained intact. 

Like other refugee women living in urban areas such as Nairobi, Mary found herself at high risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. Difficulties in finding work and accessing social services left her with few options. As a single woman with children, Mary was especially vulnerable, because she was perceived to be without male "protectors" to shield her from abusers.

JRS social workers in Nairobi have realised that many survivors who turn to the police are left without follow-up or legal protection. Often the police fail to take the women's reports seriously; they do not arrest perpetrators and it is difficult to prosecute owing to lack of proper compilation of evidence, witness protection or assurance of a fair trial. 

On the other hand, survivors of sexual violence do not find it easy to disclose their ordeal, owing to the stigma and shame they face from fellow community members, which are aggravated when they bear children as a result of rape. To fill this gap, JRS in Nairobi has been educating refugee women – partnering with the Church and other agencies – about SGBV and how survivors can get support. Consequently, more women are coming out to report cases. JRS social workers help refugee women access health services, psychosocial support, legal aid and other forms of social assistance, and to find alternative accommodation away from insecure areas or risky jobs.

JRS has witnessed first hand that SGBV is not confined to women. Our social workers have met refugee men and boys who were sexually abused, especially in their home country, with a high number of cases from DRC. For over three years, Patrick* lived with what he described as "unspeakable shame" after his sodomy ordeal at the hands of rebel forces in North Kivu province in eastern DRC. He is receiving support from several agencies.

JRS is part of a working group on SGBV affecting refugees in Nairobi. Mechanisms of ensuring trust and confidentiality are crucial between client and social worker, between different agencies working on the same cases. We are committed to upholding the dignity of survivors of SGBV and reversing the discriminatory effects they suffer to restore and reinforce their self-worth.

*Names have been changed 

Stella Ngumuta, JRS Eastern Africa advocacy officer. This article appeared in the last issue of Servir. Click here to read more.  


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