A Discussion with Cecilia Kavita and John Katee, HIAS Kenya

With: Cecilia Kavita Berkley Center Profile John Katee Berkley Center Profile

November 13, 2014

Background: HIAS Kenya provides refugee services in urban areas. Cecilia Kavita, programs coordinator for HIAS, and John Katee, psychosocial programs manager, spoke with Elisabeth Stoddard on November 13, 2014 in Nairobi. The conversation offered background on HIAS as an international organization and on its Kenya work and the challenges HIAS faces in supporting Nairobi’s population of urban refugees. HIAS works with survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) and aims to combat the harsh stigma that pushes victims and their families to remain silent. HIAS also engages men and boys as a way of sensitizing them on effects of SGBV on survivors, families, and communities at large.

Can you tell me a little bit about HIAS Kenya?

John Katee: HIAS Kenya was founded in 2002 to provide protection to refugees from several African countries plagued by conflict, to advocate on their behalf, and to resettle the most vulnerable. This was the beginning of HIAS’s work in Kenya to build safe communities for refugees in the countries of first refuge, where the majority now remain indefinitely. For the last 12 years, we have been active, mostly in Nairobi, in targeting vulnerable urban refugees and providing direct assistance, protection, research and advocacy, and capacity building to urban refugees at heightened risk with an aim to provide dignified lives to all refugees. 

Does the Jewish religion inform HIAS’ vision or mission?

Katee: We borrow a lot from the Jewish tradition, specifically the Jewish belief in repairing the world or tikkun olam. HIAS is founded on the principles of Jewish values which uphold human dignity, the protection of the vulnerable, and the right to freedom. We believe in helping those in need and providing services to the most vulnerable. Even though most people in our office are not Jewish and there is only a very small Jewish population in Kenya, we use these universal values as a common ground.

What is the history of HIAS at the global level?

Katee: HIAS was founded in 1881 by a small American Jewish community living in Manhattan at the time of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Over the years as the Russian Jewish population dramatically increased in New York, HIAS began to offer meals, transportation, and jobs for the new Jewish immigrants. HIAS continued to grow and was on the front lines of assisting Jewish immigrants as they fled persecution during World War I and World War II. Now over 130 years after its founding, HIAS continues its mission by supporting the world’s new refugee communities regardless of origin or religion. HIAS has operations in Africa, Eurasia, Latin America, Middle East, and U.S. regions. Less than 1 percent of HIAS’ global clientele is Jewish.

What are HIAS Kenya’s main programs?

Cecilia Kavita: We utilize the community-based approach in our four main programs: psychosocial assistance, protection, research and advocacy, and capacity building. Under psychosocial we do assessments, counseling, support groups, and direct assistance to refugees who have experienced trauma and need psychosocial support. Under protection we focus on prevention and response to GBV and provision of protection services to persons with specific needs (the elderly, minorities, persons living with disability—physical or mental, single heads of households, women at risk, and children, comprised of unaccompanied minors, separated children, children at risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation).

We also provide safe housing and resettlement to refugees with heightened security concerns. Together with HIAS US, we undertake both qualitative and quantitative research to inform our evidence-based programming and advocacy interventions. We seek to create an atmosphere of community capacity building through facilitating development and strengthening of already existing community structures, as well as leadership development and self-reliance.

How do you choose the community committee members? Are religious leaders involved?

Katee: Our selection criteria upholds community values and targets persons with respect within their community—persons who are opinion shapers. We build their capacity further, thus equipping them in reaching out to the community and spreading the word. With that said, among the refugee communities, many of their leaders are religious leaders. The committees, therefore, have a representation of religious leaders across various faiths, e.g. Muslim and Christian. Our target groups are mainly Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Congolese, Sudanese, Rwandese, and Ugandan. Most of them are either Muslim or Christian. 

Are the majority of urban refugees in Nairobi from Somalia?

Katee: Yes, the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers remain Somali nationals (428,987), followed by South Sudanese (87,205), and Ethiopians (30,476). HIAS works in densely refugee-populated areas in Nairobi, having established three field offices—Kayole, Eastleigh, and Kawangware. The refugee populations in Kayole are predominantly Congolese, Eastleigh is mostly Somali and Oromos (Eritreans and Ethiopians), and Kawangware is Congolese, Ethiopian, Burundian, and lately Ugandans and Sudanese.

What kind of issues do the refugee committees address?

Kavita: We form the committees according to three focus areas. Some committees focus on persons with special needs (PSN). The target is people living with disabilities, the elderly community, women at risk, and single heads of households. We make sure that all of those categories are represented in the committee composition. The PSN committees focus of understanding, identification, response, and/or referral of persons with specific needs.

We also have child protection committees. Within these we make sure that they comprise caretakers, foster parents of unaccompanied or separated children, and regular refugee mothers and fathers. Through the committee we build their capacity to identify, respond, and prevent child abuse, exploitation, and neglect while creating awareness and education on children rights.

And for the GBV committees, we ensure that we have GBV survivors represented. We want to be able to discuss the core issues that bring out GBV in the communities. Some of the communities that we have had challenges reaching to regarding GBV prevention and response are the Ethiopians and Somalis. The challenges stem from cultural believes and practices, the patriarchic nature of the community, and basically ignorance. To combat this, we have majored on peer education and behaviour change communication, whose effect has been an increase in real-time GBV incidence reporting, and decrease in incidences. 

Does HIAS also work with survivors to file court cases?

Kavita: Yes, both legal and medical. There is a sequence we adhere to: first the hospital, then the police, and then counseling at HIAS. We work with medical partners and legal partners who facilitate access justice for survivors.

Has there been any success in the court system yet for GBV survivors?

Kavita: We have had some success cases, but the numbers are still very few because most of our challenges in the justice system. But, some are still ongoing. Sometimes because of cultural beliefs and attitudes, the survivors do not want to pursue the cases in court so they will drop the charges. That has been one of the main challenges. Even when our legal partners definitely want to ensure that the case goes through, in some instances cases are withdrawn when the judgment has almost been handed down.

This challenge is exacerbated by both family and community pressures, and anti-feminist myths that propagate that GBV doesn’t exist, any woman at the age 15 years old should be able to handle sexual intercourse, and that wife battery is a disciplinary act. Some of the communities believe that these matters are best settled at the community level; hence they don’t want to go to court because there are serious legal implications. If they do go to court, what does that mean for the future of the family and the family of the abuser? There is a lack of awareness and knowledge about legal systems and the seriousness and consequences of GBV incidences in the now and long-term. 

If the communities choose to resolve the GBV incident internally, what happens?

Kavita: The elders will sit with the parents of the affected if under 18 years old or the spouse or family of the survivor if adults and their representatives, talk about it, and if the alleged perpetrator is found guilty, shall be warned and maybe fined or asked to give some other compensation to the family of the survivor. And the matter is finished and closed. The biggest problem is that where this mode is followed, the discussion never happens with the survivor. It is the elder, the clan, the community, and they don’t look at the impacts that the GBV incident might have had on the survivor.

Katee: This is mostly because of the stigma that GBV carries. Therefore the legal process again is long, and it’s a public affair, and therefore it exposes the family, the perpetrator, and also the survivor. Because of this, communities feel a need to protect themselves, the survivor, and the perpetrator from further embarrassment. They choose to resolve it in the community; that is part of the stigma. While there has certainly been some headway, I believe a lot of sensitization around GBV needs to happen. 

What happens if the GBV came from within the family? Are cases ever taken to court if the violence is between a husband and a wife?

Katee: That’s the most complex. There is tension between protecting the survivor and wanting to resolve it in the nuclear family. Sometimes there is even a fear of telling the extended family because of stigma. If they were to take the case to court, the whole family and community would know everything.

Kavita: I would say there have been domestic violence cases which have gone to court. But, it is very unusual. If a woman is being battered, she will run away, and we will rescue her and put her in a safe place. But the moment you mention, "Let’s pursue this legally," they withdraw. They may go back to their home and resolve it internally.

What kind of counseling do you do with GBV survivors?

Katee: Right after the survivor goes through the medical and legal process, they come to our counselor for psychosocial support and psychological debriefing. The purpose of this is strictly to address the issues as they are fresh because sexual abuse is an extremely traumatic thing. Through this debriefing, we encourage them to deal with the issues when the memories are fresh. After this first session, the survivor has several subsequent sessions depending on their needs. There could be six to 10 sessions depending on the presenting issues and magnitude of effect. If they have been abused in the past or have been exposed to previous trauma, longer sessions may be required. Sometimes this can last for over a year.

Kavita: In the HIAS model, we start with psycho-education, then we move to therapy when we think that the person is able to participate, once they have processed the immediate issues arising from the incident. Then we advise them to join a GBV group therapy. We normally do 12 sessions of group therapy. After they have graduated from the group therapy, then we graduate them into a support group where they deal not only with psychological issues, but also social issues and their needs in a supportive way. After that stage, we graduate the support groups into livelihood groups in which they learn income generating skills.

Do the survivors tend to stay in the program through all of the group stages?

Very few leave, very few. When they realize they are not alone, they want to stay with the people who understand. They come from communities that remain silent about GBV because of the overwhelming stigma. For example, in the Congolese community, if your husband finds out 10 years into your marriage that you were raped, he may immediately divorce you.

They do not go through the legal system for the divorce; they just leave the woman with nothing. The men will walk away and never come back because they cannot live with a ‘defiled’ woman. It is often very painful because most of these women were abused during the war in Congo or during their flight to Kenya. They did not bring about these events, but the men are not ready to understand so they will leave the women.

In cases where men are the survivors, it may also lead to assumptions that they are gay, and this may affect their relationship in the family and with self. They present with self-stigma, self-hate, and a sense that they have lost their manhood. The beliefs and attitudes are so deeply ingrained in them. That is why we are also targeting the men to understand that these women did not choose to get abused. It is an accident. It is very painful and traumatic, and they need their support and understanding.

Do you have support groups for the male partners of GBV survivors?

Kavita: Yes, but the groups are segregated by gender. If they are both together only the men talk. The women won’t talk. We also have support groups for male survivors of GBV, but we try to mix them up or give the group different names. It’s never a GBV men survivors group.

Do the men come to these GBV support groups?

Kavita: Yes, they do. You see, they will reveal it to you as an individual, but they will not reveal it in a group setting. Sometimes I’ve done support groups with men who I know are all survivors of GBV. But none of them knows that the other one is a survivor. We cannot speak directly about their abuse, but we talk about the general issues. They also go through the group therapy, the support groups, and the livelihood groups. 

Does HIAS do any work in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps?

Kavita: HIAS operations in Kenya are urban-based. We have, however, conducted capacity building for camp-based colleagues on the protection of minorities.

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