Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for the ‘women’ Category

Life can be hard for mothers-to-be / Uganda

Posted by Joanne Offer on 14 August, 2008

Namoe Helen attends an antenatal clinic where IRC offers mothers-to-be voluntary counseling and testing for HIV.

Namoe Helen attends an antenatal clinic where the IRC offers mothers-to-be voluntary counseling and testing for HIV. Photos: Joanne Offer/The IRC

Joanne Offer is in Uganda, where the International Rescue Committee is working with Ugandan communities affected by conflict as well as refugees from neighboring Sudan. Read all her latest posts here.

I meet Namoe Helen at ante-natal class. She’s pregnant with her second child and has come to St Pius Kidepo health center in Moroto district for a check up. Pregnant women can also get tested for HIV as part of IRC’s work to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus.Namoe Helen says, “I’ve been tested for HIV as a precaution and I’m negative. It’s good to be tested because the virus is becoming very widespread; it’s not just affecting town people, it’s in the villages too.”

Examining Namoe Helen is sister Marygoretti, who’s been running the antenatal clinic for the past few months. Marygoretti is originally from eastern Uganda and was shocked by the conditions in Karamoja.

Sister Marygoretti examines Namoe Helen on her latest visit to the ante-natal clinic where women can also get health advice and mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

Sister Marygoretti examines Namoe Helen on her latest visit to the ante-natal clinic where women can also get health advice and mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

She says, “It’s so different here. When you look at the living conditions, you see it’s very harsh. Poor sanitation is a big problem and most of the health conditions are related to this. Nutrition is also a big problem. This year, nothing has grown. But the women here get food rations to help them during pregnancy.”

Soon, barefooted, Namoe Helen is beginning her long walk home. It will take her an hour. Life can be hard for mothers-to-be here in Karamoja.


Posted in Africa, Aids, health, photos, women | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Changes from the ground up / Ethiopia

Posted by Emily Holland on 11 August, 2008

Emily catches up with a group of children around an IRC-built tap stand.
Emily catches up with a group of children around an IRC-built tap stand. Photo: The IRC
International Rescue Committee communications officer Emily Holland and IRC intern and Princeton University student Daniella Raveh are visiting Ethiopia where they will be blogging about the lives and struggles of refugees and young girls and women.  See all their posts here.West Hararghe, Ethiopia When the IRC began building tap stands in peasant villages in West Hararghe, Ethiopia, staff were confident that health would improve for the thousands of residents who live there.  What IRC didn’t foresee was how much life in general would improve—and for women, especially.
Kedija, a 30-year-old mother of nine, used to walk four hours every day—two hours each way—to collect water for her husband and children.  Not only did this chore consume most of Kedija’s day, the water she brought back was often undrinkable.
Now, Kedija frequents an IRC tap stand that yields clean water just ten minutes from her home.  Her family no longer suffers from water-borne diseases.  Kedija’s family can drink water whenever they choose and bathe and wash their clothes more frequently.  Best of all:  with more time on her hands, Kedija is catching up on the education she cut short to marry and raise a family.
Commented Daniella:  “The way that people spoke about life before the tap stand made it seem like a very long time ago.  It’s obvious that this is a new time.  Accessible water is moving their village forward and, when it comes to challenging gender roles, breaking tradition with the past.  Usually, we think of big change coming from the top down.  Here, this tap stand is changing things from the ground up.”

Daniella and a friend give the GPS device a try.

Daniella gives the GPS device a try.

And also from the sky…since 2003, the IRC has been using satellite images, digitized maps, and aerial photographs collected in the field using GPS technology to pinpoint areas that lack potable water and identify new water sources.  With the information collected, we’re able to monitor each tap stand, covered spring, and latrine the IRC has constructed in Ethiopian communities.  We’re also able to put this technology to work to analyze other problems:  why are children in this community dropping out of school?  Could it be that water sources are located too far from their schools?  Or from their homes, requiring them to walk miles each day to collect water for their families, precluding school altogether?

Posted in Africa, children, education, health, women | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Ethiopia: Addis Ababa to West Hararghe

Posted by Emily Holland on 1 August, 2008

Emily Holland/The IRC
Photo: Emily Holland/the IRC
International Rescue Committee communications officer Emily Holland and IRC intern and Princeton University student Daniella Raveh are visiting Ethiopia where they will be blogging about the lives and struggles of refugees and young girls and women.  See all their posts here.

July 27, 2008  First day.  Boots on the ground.  We arrive in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and meet with several of our IRC colleagues.  One teaches us a few words in Amharic, the national language. 
We know that Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent nation and its second most populous.  As we wander around the local market, we learn that Ethiopia has yielded some of humanity’s oldest civilizations and that Addis is, according to some scholars, a central point from which human beings first migrated around the world. 

Ethiopia is also called “the land of a thousand smiles,” but as we drive further away from the capital, those smiles turn to something more like apprehension.
And why not?  It’s the rainy season now – this should be the happy time — but we are told that the green expanse before us will soon turn to sand.  The rains have been sparse this year and inadequate to ensure the harvest this autumn.

On our way to West Hararghe, a region east of Addis, we drive past circular, thatched huts and the occasional mosque and church.  We see young children collecting filmy water from a muddy pond in jerry cans.  Women drag entire unearthed trees home on their backs for firewood.  Young boys lead herds of anemic animals to pasture.  The animals, cows and goats, are little more than ribs and horns.
Still, now in West Hararghe, we encounter pockets of hope.  IRC staff describe the wells and tap stands we’ll be visiting tomorrow.  Women who once walked two to three hours one way to collect water for their families now have a clean and healthy source of water right in their village –10 to 15 minutes’ distance on foot.

Emily Holland/The IRC
Daniella and kids in Ethiopia. Photo: Emily Holland/The IRC

Young children, victims of child labor, are now going to school thanks to the IRC’s KURET program.  Finally, we’ll meet a teenage girl whose extraordinary life story – escape from an early marriage — is helping change a village’s mind about child rights.
Speaking of children, a group of children are playing a game of foosball on a dilapidated and well-loved table right outside the IRC’s West Hararghe office.  Their skill and concentration are striking.  You can tell that they’ve been playing at the table everyday.  Daniella decides to join them.
Closing thoughts:  we are eager and honored to meet the faces behind the need tomorrow.  Being in a position to report on humanitarian endeavors, one can’t help but feel a bit conflicted, too:  forced to prioritize a seemingly endless list of needs and issues.  We’ll do our best. 

Posted in Africa, children, women | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Making a difference in Ethiopia

Posted by Emily Holland on 25 July, 2008

Photo: The IRC
International Rescue Committee communications officer Emily Holland and IRC intern and Princeton University student Daniella Raveh are visiting Ethiopia where they will be blogging about the lives and struggles of refugees and young girls and women.  You can read all their posts here.


I just got the OK today. It’s final: I am traveling to Ethiopia to document the lives of refugees and the local population. Emily just finished giving me her “Africa 101” lesson: what to bring, what to wear, what new foods we’ll be trying, and most importantly, the important IRC projects that we’ll be visiting. Generating expectations is far from easy, however. This is my first time in Africa, and I don’t know what to expect. Since I live in the Middle East, people assume that I might have a better understanding of what a country that has endured conflict might be like. To be honest, I don’t know if my life has prepared me for this mission.

When I tell people I’m going to Ethiopia, they seem puzzled: “Ethiopia? Why, what’s happening there?” I quickly recite a long list of problems: Famine, disease, child labor, and poverty, not to mention the horrible violence against women and continuous border disputes. But these horrors are rarely mentioned in the media. With war and conflict happening all over the world, suffering becomes relative. Compared to what’s happening in Darfur or Congo, Ethiopia is a small story.

So I’m going to document what people don’t know or have forgotten about Ethiopia. I’m going to see with my own eyes sights that excited or shocked me in movies and pictures. Never in my life have I looked forward to seeing such sights, but in a weird way, I am excited and can’t wait to land in Addis Ababa.

Emily Holland, The IRCEmily:

As for me, I’m thrilled to be able to introduce someone to the field for the first time. Daniella has done a stellar job working for the IRC this summer, and I can’t wait to see what she makes of life in one of the many countries where we work.

As Daniella says, we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. People know Ethiopia, if they know it at all, as a place where periodic famines break out and the AIDS pandemic soars. As humanitarian workers, we propose to do something different—to tell a new story.

First, we’ll be investigating one of the most basic aspects of aid: water. We will chart the many (and sometimes unexpected) benefits building a well can brings to a small village. And we will look at how the IRC is using sophisticated satellite imaging technology to locate new water sources.

Next, we will meet young girls and boys who are working as gold miners in Ethiopia’s remote desert regions. Extreme poverty has forced thousands of children to take up this dangerous work. How is the IRC working to combat this and other forms of child labor? We’ll find out.

Finally, we will document the lives of refugee women and girls living in Ethiopia. Women and girls are the key to development in Africa. Until they are able to take their full place in society, it will be difficult for Africa to reach its full potential. Daniella and I will participate in education awareness campaigns that the IRC is conducting to encourage girls to stay in school. We’ll learn how distributing feminine products contributes to helping them to stay in school. We’ll also participate in “coffee sessions”: dynamic meetings where IRC staff champion concepts like gender equality among women and men.

It’s sure to be a rich and rewarding trip. In closing, I often talk about “Africa eyes.” It refers to a vision people visiting the African continent develop: new insights into what’s important and how they should lead their lives. I’m excited to be there when Daniella’s Africa eyes open.

Posted in Africa, children, refugees, women | Tagged: , , | 16 Comments »

The IRC in Burundi: Helping Refugees Return

Posted by The IRC on 24 July, 2008

The cooking skills training in the commune Nyanza-Lac. These youth are supported by IRC in a 6-month training course on cooking; they learn both practical and theoretical aspects of the trade. Their instructor was a local woman who expressed to us the joy she felt in teaching the youth and despite her small kitchen was willing to take on more students.
Photo: /The IRC

Barri Shorey is the International Rescue Committee‘s youth and livelihoods program manager based in New York City.

In April, Barri traveled to the central African country of Burundi, which is recovering from more than a dozen years of war and mass displacement following a 1993 genocide that drove more than 500,000 to seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Tanzania. The IRC has been working in Burundi since 1996, reuniting uprooted families, assisting former child solders, helping returning refugees reintegrate, and promoting peace and stability as the country rebuilds after the conflict.

The following guest post is the first in a series of three.


Arriving in Burundi I was first struck by the amazing beauty of this mountainous country. Our first assignment was to travel to Makamba, a province in the south bordering Tanzania. Makamba will soon become home to many of the 100,000 Burundians returning from refugee camps in Tanzania slated to close next year. These refugees—over half of them children and youth— will need support for a peaceful return and reintegration. Host communities will need help absorbing these new arrivals into what are already overtaxed local economies.

The markets and town centers we visited in Makamba were busy and full of life. People were out and about buying and selling bread, fruit and vegetables. Bicycle repair shops and tailoring shops were whirring with activity. But In and around the market place during school hours were tons of children, without books, school uniforms or even shoes – their school fees too great for their poverty stricken families to afford. Burundi’s education system, crippled by the conflict, is unable to accommodate all its children—and as more and more families return from Tanzania the number of children and youth who don’t receive any schooling will continue to grow.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) supports training for out-of-school youth in skilled trades to help them become more employable and able to contribute to their families’ incomes. We visited a couple of these courses, run by local tradespeople specializing in carpentry and cooking. While the trainers and IRC staff members clearly took pride in their students’ accomplishments, they said they worried that after graduation the students would have difficulty finding jobs—and a path to self-sufficient adulthood— in a struggling economy where opportunities are few.

What youth need to make it in the markets – and ultimately in life – is a sense of innovation, the ability to cope with shocks and setbacks, and the confidence and self esteem to believe they have a future.

The hopeful young Burundians we met and who the IRC’s youth program staff encounter each day are willing and even desperate to try new things and dedicate time to learning new skills. But they need more than just a trade to succeed. They also need the know-how to start their own business and access credit, the knowledge to keep themselves healthy mentally and physically, and the ability and understanding to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. The IRC has received new funding to expand its youth programs and is working to provide young people with these “big picture” skills that will help them navigate their way to a healthy and peaceful adulthood.

What I was most struck by in Makamba was the hope of the Burundian youth that, despite all odds, they were going to work to restore peace and stability in their country. Their optimism was cautious, but they remained hopeful that things can and will change for their country.

Posted in Africa, children, refugees, women | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »