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Somalian husbands and sons missing from refugee camps

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Summary of story from AlJazeera, July 22, 2011

Dadaab – welcome to the world’s largest refugee camp, situated in Kenya.

Somalians fleeing the latest bout of droughts and famines in their home country (see WVoN story) often travel distances exceeding 200km on foot to get here.

According to the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), 80 per cent of the camp’s residents are women and children, the remaining 20 per cent are predominantly elderly men or young boys.

This begs the question: where are Dadaab’s men?

One theory points to a custom in pastoral Somalian society for men to separate from their families for long periods of time in order to search for new land on which their animals may graze.

Therefore, it follows suit that families split up for survival, with women assuming responsibility for the children and men staying behind to save the remaining cattle, before joining up with their families at a later date.

According to Andrew Wander, Save the Children’s emergency media manager, cattle are their wealth, their assets, and they will try to save them at all costs.

“And because it is not safe to be left alone in farms, especially with no food available, the women and children [often] move with the neighbours or other relatives to safer areas where they might access food to survive,” he explains.

Although difficult to generalise, in some cases these women may never be reunited with their husbands.

“The men are probably dead, or fighting, or [they] stayed behind to look after the livestock, and will probably come later, or they might not have had enough money to come with the family,” says Jane Alice Okello, a senior protection officer with the UNHCR.

Abduction is another concern within Somalian society, with young men particularly at risk.

This prompts many of them to stay at home, for fear that they may be picked up on the road and forced to fight in the ongoing civil war with the forces of the Somali Transitional Federal Government.

With no husbands and sons for protection, coupled with the overcrowding which forces many families to relocate just outside the camp, many women are left open to sexual exploitation and physical violence.

According to UNICEF, 358 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence were reported at Dadaab between January and June of this year, compared to the 75 reported cases during the same period last year.

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