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Freeing war to fight in camps

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It is around 3pm on a cold Monday at Luwani Refugee Camp located in the Southern part of Malawi.

The camp in Neno District was reopened in 2015 following conflicts in Mozambique.

At present, there are about 3, 070 refugees.

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On this day, we found men in groups— perhaps, discussing issues that matter to them at the camp and children are all over the place, playing.

Some women are singing, chatting, while others are plying their various trades.

I eavesdropped a conversation of a group of women who were discussing family matters.

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One interesting thing is how most of the women complained of being abused or ill-treated by their spouses especially after the households receive a consignment of food items.

After sometime, I met a woman, Catherine Bernado, who is in her mid-30s. She has nine children.

The woman who comes from Ndande in Mozambique said most of the times men abuse their wives at the camp whenever they are drunk.

“Stories of men beating up their spouses are reported on daily basis at the camp. I have experienced it and a lot of other women have endured the same. The problem is when the cases are reported to authorities at the camp, especially to police, we (women) are the first to withdraw the cases. So I presume domestic violence is a battle that will take time to be won especially here at the camp,” said Bernado.

Alick Foster, who hails from Nkondezi in Mozambique, agrees that there is existence of gender based violence at the camp but he said some men are also victims of the same.

“Gender based violence is twofold here. We have instances when men get beaten up by their wives. I am saying this because I was appointed to chair a committee that offers counseling services, especially on domestic violence. A good example would be that of a marriage we met last week. The man drinks a lot and the woman was bitter and pounced on the man. So that is just one common example where men fall victims of domestic violence,” he said.

After hearing from the two parties, Luwani Refugee Camp Manager, Joseph Mkango, also acknowledged the problem.

He, however, said the malpractice might not have started at the camp. Perhaps it is a way of life in Mozambique.

“Domestic violence is a bit of a problem at the camp. From the onset women are made to feel inferior to their husbands and thus their culture. It becomes a problem when the men go drinking because when they come back cases of violence are so numerous. The sad thing that is pulling us down is that when the cases are reported to police the cases are most of the times withdrawn. This is done mostly by the women for fear of being ill-treated by relatives of their husbands when they get back home,” he said.

Statistics indicate that almost half of the women in Malawi have experienced some form of gender based violence. It seems refugee camps are not sacred cows.

Reports indicate that, at Luwani Refugee Camp, at least 15 cases of gender based violence are recorded every week.

Mkango said, as one way of curbing the vice, protection committees were established where aggrieved persons report their problems.

Globally, it is estimated that 35 percent of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, according to the United Nations Women.

In Malawi, according to Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Jean Kalirani, about 40 percent of women experience sexual violence, 30 percent experience physical violence and 44 percent have experienced psychosocial violence.

Despite the case, Malawi is a signatory to various international instruments whose purpose is to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

Malawi is among 115 countries which have laws in place aimed at protecting women and girls.

Gender based violence might not be the only challenge at refugee camps in the country, as there are also land wrangles between hosting communities and government.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp in the Central Region is facing the problem of congestion. The camp was designed to host 12, 000 asylum seekers and refugees but currently the camp has a population of over 30, 000 people.

Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security’s Senior Deputy Secretary, Patricia Liabuba, says plans are underway to establish a bigger campsite.

She mentions of the disputed Katiri Camp in Karonga.

“There is a process that one undertakes to be an asylum seeker in the country. We look for valid reasons that would really make that somebody flee his country and seek refuge in this country. So we are speeding up that process so that those without valid reasons should go back home. Again, we are looking for a much bigger place to be keeping refugees and asylum seekers,” she said.

Liabuba also said a tripartite meeting the Malawi Government held with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Mozambique government was aimed at suggesting ways on how the refugees could be repatriated voluntarily.

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