Politics and Society
The guardian angels of South Sudan’s Maban County refugee camps
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently published the story of Mama Elizabeth, a 65-year-old Sudanese refugee who is among the volunteer “guardian angels” who have opened their homes in the four refugee camps in South Sudan’s Maban County to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Since 2016, volunteers living in Maban County’s refugee camps have opened their homes to care for women affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). There are four refugee camps in the Greater Maban region, namely Kaya, Yosuf Batil, Gendrassa and Doro. Here 142 500 refugees reside, mostly people who have fled armed conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
These safe havens provided by volunteers to the camp inhabitants have hosted women, children and men in need, under an initiative led by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency and the Danish Refugee Council. More than 145 000 vulnerable refugees have benefitted under this initiative.
Dubbed “guardian angels” for their work, these 48 refugee volunteers have had an impact on numerous lives for the better. One of these volunteers who helps the UNHCR and partner agencies to provide safe shelters is Mama Elizabeth, whom the organisation highlighted in a recent article.
She is a refugee who has been displaced by conflict many times and has lived in Doro camp since 2011. For five years she has been a women’s representative who advocates for women’s rights and mobilises community members for the creation of awareness on various issues, including SGBV.
“I was the one that humanitarian organisations spoke to if they wished to share any messages with the women in my community,” Mama Elizabeth said in the interview.
“The ‘guardian angels’ are local leaders who are highly respected by the refugees and host community,” explains Grace Atim, a UNHCR protection officer based in Maban. “They volunteer to take on this role and they have the ability to stand up to perpetrators of SGBV.”
Mama Elizabeth is a refugee and a guardian angel.
For three years, she has been advocating against sexual and gender-based violence in South Sudan.
Learn more about what she does here: https://t.co/mzN5YCcgAD #WomensDay pic.twitter.com/aIFObTrdHM
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) March 8, 2019
According to the article, South Sudan’s conflict has forced almost 2.3 million people to flee across six countries in the region, while an additional 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced within the country. About 80% of the displaced are women and children who face various risks, including SGBV.
It goes on to detail that in 2018 more than 1 500 cases of SGBV were reported to the UNHCR and partner agencies – cases involving physical, emotional, psychological and sexual violence that have inflicted harm on women, men and children.
Read: World Refugee Day: Stories of refugees who succeeded against all odds
All reported cases received medical, psychosocial and legal aid, as well as material assistance based on their needs.
Towards SGBV intervention, the UHNCR works closely with partner agencies and refugee and host communities to build safe shelters, conduct awareness campaigns, strengthen referral mechanisms and sensitise communities to the importance of combatting the problem.
“We also strive to build the capacity of ‘guardian angels’ like Mama Elizabeth so that they can understand the need to fight SGBV and protect those at risk,” adds Atim.
Since attending these training sessions, Mama Elizabeth has changed her view on certain cultural practices, such as early marriage, which she had previously respected as part of her community’s tradition.
“After the training, I now understand how early marriage is wrong,” she said. “Women are left behind. Once a girl is married early, she loses the opportunity to pursue education.”
Mama Elizabeth added that education is very important because “someone who is educated can be able to understand a lot of things from around the world and is in a position to deliver.”
In her ordinary hut, she has shielded and offered a lifeline to abused and vulnerable refugees in South Sudan while creating awareness on the issues that affect them, making her an everyday hero.