Famine in Africa: The Underreported Facts

By now, many of you have likely heard about the famine that is gripping regions of four countries in the Horn of Africa including Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti. See my post from earlier this month for more background. Recently added to this list is a sliver in South Sudan. To date, approximately 12 million people are in need of humanitarian aid including food, water, medical assistance and security.

Even for reporters who have worked in similar circumstances, the current one is astoundingly tragic.

“I didn’t think I’d see any surprises,” said seasoned air worker Liz McLaughlin at a CARE forum earlier this month. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

One of the most populous refugee camps, Dadaab, is just over the Somali border in Kenya and was designed to accommodate 90,000. It is currently hosting more than 415,000. And thousands more arrive daily seeking shelter and safety.

Newly arriving refugees from Somalia are housed in the outskirts of Dadaab. Photo credit: Edward Macharia/ IRC.

Point One: A Female Face

Like many other challenges in the developing world, the famine is affecting women and children in unique ways that the mainstream media isn’t reporting – violence against women in the refugee camps is rampant.

Too many women are telling the same story: during their journey to the Dadaab refugee camp, women and girls are being taken from overcrowded vehicles, robbed and raped at gun point. Many were raped by multiple attackers and sometimes in front of their families. Some girls even “came to the camp naked,” one woman confided.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the aid groups on site in Dadaab, reports that an increasing number of women and girls are seeking treatment for their attacks when they arrive. It also acknowledge that many likely don’t – either out of shame or because what happened to them is one of many concerns that must be dealt with.

Inside the camp, security is buckling. Many women and girls are attacked when they walk to get fire wood. There are simply too many people and not enough resources.

Point Two: It’s Complicated

The numbers mean little to me. The question we should all be asking is how something like this is allowed to happen. The answer is a complicated one that few journalists report.

The reasons vary by country but here is a (very) simplified list: famines occur in countries where people are tyrannized by governments and militias. Governments invest in arming their militias rather than feeding their people. Rural farmers have no sense of security that their crops won’t be taken away from them. And unstable economic growth only exacerbates the problem.

I could go on but the point is this. There are not 12 million people at risk of starvation simply because of drought and global warming. Do these challenges make it worse? Yes. But the tragedy unfolding in Africa today is happening in Africa for a multitude of reasons. And it’s time the world paid closer attention to the whys in order to make a difference.

What You Can Do

At this point in the American political cycle, Congress is not about to increase its foreign aid. Groups like CARE and the IRC are praiseworthy in their dedication and ability to provide as much assistance as possible in such a dire situation. Follow their work or donate to stay involved. And spread the word.

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