Women and Children in the East African Famine


In another life, Liz McLaughlin worked as a stock trader in Chicago and her native Scotland. But for the past 18 years, she’s worked in international aid in regions like the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. Most recently, she traveled to refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya and Borena, Ethiopia, as part of her role as executive director of the Foundations Unit for CARE, to examine the ongoing fallout from the famine in Somalia. Dadaab is, in fact, the largest refugee camp in the world; at the beginning of the crisis, it was home to 380,00 people, and is currently experiencing 1,600 new arrivals every day. With the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of African worsening by the day — the latest numbers show that more than 12 million people have been severely affected by the worst drought in 60 years — aid workers are largely concentrated outside of Somalia, where workers and officials face significant barriers to entry. I spoke with Ms. McLaughlin about the effects of the food crisis and drought on women and children, who make up the majority of the refugees entering Ethiopia and Kenya.

Most of the refugees, including 80 percent of those arriving at Dadaab, are women and children. Why?
That was one of the first questions that I asked. I interviewed many people, mostly mothers and children. Almost all of them said, the men remain in Somalia to look after the elderly, which makes a lot of sense because a lot of these women were traveling up to 21 days to get to the camps.

What are the consequences or additional risk factors for mothers who arrive without the fathers of their children?
It certainly adds a lot of added pressure to the mothers. The children are with them non-stop and there’s no mechanism there – the women often go and collect water, they have to take the children with them. I’ve not seen a lot of gender-based violence here, but there is some going on, and that’s another — it’s obviously a risk factor.

One of the ladies I interviewed was a victim of gender-based violence. CARE has the mechanism in place [to help such women]. I was so impressed – as the women and the families come in to register, there are several steps. And one of them is medical checks. We have people standing by who have experience with gender-based violence.

So Dadaab doesn’t seem to be experiencing the levels of gender-based violence that can arise in such situations?
Not that I’ve seen. I think the key thing is to ensure that there is support there.

What are the immediate aid needs for women and children?
Definitely food, food security, water, sanitation and health. The children that are coming in – malnutrition is the biggest problem at the moment. It’s [always] babies and children that are affected first, [but here,] you’re seeing it in the parents. I’ve [worked in conflicted regions] for 18 years, I’ve done 4 years in Darfur, and I’ve never seen such hungry men. That’s the first time. It’s the first time to see men in such shock.

What we were hearing from the mothers and fathers when they were traveling, the little food they did have was given the children. So not only were they not getting food and nutrition in Somalia, they then walked up to 21 days. The priority for the families, as well as NGOs, is the children.

Tell us about the educational programs that are set up for children in Dadaab.
When I was there, there were 4000 children there, and it was fantastic – definitely, almost half of [the children] are girls in the education programs. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the facilities that are there were built for refugees that have been there 20 years. The numbers have gone up drastically, and now we’ve got this massive influx of children. They’re being taught outside in the hot weather, and I’m not talking about 10 or 20 per classroom. I counted seven classrooms, about 50 children in each classroom, outside. I was so happy to see it looked like it was an equal split boys and girls. One of the saddest moments was when we were standing and interviewing the headmaster [of the school] and the gates opened and another 60 refugee children ran into the playground. [One benefit is that] CARE has feeding programs in the schools as well as education, and the children are desperately in need of food.

Also, many of the children didn’t get education [where they came from]. So you’re dealing with a variety of levels. Classrooms are all different ages – I didn’t see any secondary school classes, they were all primary school, with 5 to 12 years olds in one classroom. We interviewed some of the schoolteachers, and some were babies when they were brought to refugee camps 20 years ago, or they were born in the camp. Now they’re teachers.

What are the long-term health and social repercussions for women and children?
Unless we get all the nutrition and interventions underway – and there’s a lot of hard work to try to get that done – we’re going to see a higher mortality rate for sure. The pregnant women, we’re definitely going to see more women dying because of lack of nutrition, et cetera. I think as we get the nutrition and the feeding programs, for a long time, this problem isn’t going to go away. We need to stay on top, the whole international community needs to stay on top, and make sure we’ve got strong feeding programs in place. This isn’t a new problem, we all have been aware of it, and we need to find a long term solution. What that is is to make sure people in Somalia are getting food and don’t feel the need to travel to Dadaab. Every person I spoke to said, ‘No, I didn’t leave because of war, it’s because we have no food.’ The answer is really clear: let’s try to solve the problem. Let’s get food into Somalia.

CARE has been working Dadaab for 20 years now, and we were and still are focused on food security, livelihoods, vocational training. So families are growing their own crops, have livestock, feeding programs for the livestock, and that’s not stopping among the refugees who we’ve worked with for 20 years. But we’ll have to scale up a notch for the new refugees.

There’s a hesitance in some circles to use the word “famine.” Why?
The situation is that in Dadaab – the international community is trying really hard to address the problem to prevent it to reach that stage in Dadaab. In Somalia, it’s a different matter – the international community is not able to get in there as readily.

How are women specifically coping?
Going back to those that have been there for 20 years, the livelihood programs that CARE and other NGOs have been implementing, a lot of it has been focused on the women. Dadaab, with the new influx, is now about the size of Miami. We’ll continue to train with the women, work with the women’s association, train them on livelihood, vocational training.

Women’s associations?
CARE works through local partners all over the world, and these are women’s groups that can be made up pf the host community with the refugees, or just refugee associations. Almost all of these are made up of village savings and loans schemes, a sustainable way for women to pay back to community and create a livelihood for themselves. A small vegetable stall, pots and pans, and things like this. We’ll train them in how to run small businesses and how to keep the records, restock et cetera.

What’s been the response to this crisis, both in the U.S. and abroad?
[Recently,] because of the debt ceiling deal in D.C., which was covered in all the media, we hardly got any donations, and we understand because the media was not covering this as well as they are this week. We hope now to see more awareness. This isn’t going to go away, and we really need the media to help on this. Hopefully that will help to bring in funds, and help the work we’ve been doing for the last 20 years. The institutional donors are definitely showing a lot of interest in Dadaab and Ethiopia. It can’t be, ‘Ok, we’ll support you now,’ and come back to us in a couple years. This problem isn’t going to go away. We’re going to need support for a long time.

You were once a stock trader in Chicago. Looking at how different your life is now, do you ever want to go back?
First of all, I love Chicago. I was fortunate to get a very junior job in stock broking, and I loved it. I was living an amazing life. I also went back to Edinburgh and worked. It was a choice to pull out of that business.

It was when the Balkan Wars broke out [in the early 1990s]. I really thought, I can’t go on with this life. Everything was becoming quite material, for me. It just wasn’t working, and then the Bosnian conflict came. I was driving trucks into Sarajevo within a month. I don’t have one single regret. My life was a complete turn. I was so happy to put all of that in plastic bags and put all of that away. I love every single day in my job. I love that I can help people.

[At first,] I did a few volunteer trips into Sarajevo and convoys, and I just couldn’t walk away from it. I remember one person saying to me, ‘Liz, do you know people [in Scotland] who could harm their neighbors like they have done in the Balkans?’ And when I really reflected back on everyone I knew in my life, I thought, I probably do know some people that could be in the same position in Scotland [as in the Balkans]. I thought, I can’t sit back and take it. It changed my life.

Any last comments?
Please help in any way you can. Start reading everything about the situation that isn’t going to go away. Every day we see the numbers rise, and the numbers are going to continue. To donate, go to www.care.org.

Photos by Kate Holt for CARE.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."