WASHINGTON – In the teeming refugee camps along the borders of the Darfur region of Sudan, women and girls who escaped the genocidal war in their homeland face a new danger – a risk they take every time they leave the camps to forage for firewood.
Rape gangs lurk outside the camps in Sudan and Chad, waiting to assault any woman they can catch.
It is a safety and security issue that gets pushed down the priority list as aid groups struggle to provide basic necessities like food and water to more than a million people uprooted by the ethnic conflict in eastern Africa.
“Firewood is one of those issues that is not just about being able to heat and cook – it’s about survival. It’s almost as vital as water to survival for these people,” said Joung-Ah Ghedini, spokeswoman for the Washington offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The nature of war is changing. Civilians who were once simply caught in the crossfire are being actively targeted in ethnic conflicts around the world. Groups like the Janjaweed militia in Darfur are using rape as a tool of terror and there is only so much that aid groups can do to provide security for traumatized refugees.
Now, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would set aside funds and devise solutions to the threats that face these vulnerable populations.
In Darfur, part of the solution could be as simple as providing the refugees with enough firewood to get them through the year without sending the women and children out to forage.
“I can’t imagine that to provide firewood for the entire year, it would take more than $100,000,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who traveled recently to the Oure Cassoni refugee camp in eastern Chad, a tent city of 20,000, less than 10 miles from the Darfur border.
Rape is a deep social taboo in the region and victims face the double trauma of ostracism from their families and punishment by their communities if they report the abuse.
The Protection of Vulnerable Populations During Humanitarian Emergencies Act would make protecting at-risk populations – such as women and girls searching for firewood – a priority in human aid relief. The bill calls for humanitarian aid beyond the basics of food, medicine and shelter.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., but has not moved out of committee.