Strength and resilience in the Nyarugusu refugee camp

Louise Hemfrey | May 04, 2017


Our Policy and Programmes Officer, Louise Hemfrey, blogs about her recent visit to Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, where Womankind’s partner 
Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) is supporting women to access legal aid and services.

The sun is only just breaking the horizon, but it’s already over 20 degrees C in the small town of Kisulu in Tanzania; 97km from Lake Tanganyika to the West and 1200km from Dar Es Salaam to the East.

My visit to Tanzania started in Dar Es Salaam, at the offices of the Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC), and is the culmination of one and a half year’s reporting for the UK Aid Match Programme, co-funded by the Department for International Development and Womankind’s fantastic supporter community. After two days in the tropical metropolis, I was whisked across Tanzania for a seven-day monitoring and reporting visit in Kigoma State, where WLAC is working in and around the Nyarugusu refugee camp.

Strength through community

Womankind and WLAC are working together on an innovative programme to Strengthen Community Response to Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). Through the training of Community Paralegals in the refugee camp of Nyarugusu, and the host community of Kigoma State, stakeholders are able to seek legal advice and services from WLAC, free of charge, ensuring that the basic rights of women and girls are being respected and upheld in their communities. Additionally, WLAC is training a network of local service providers including police, community chiefs, youth groups and local militias, who in turn contribute to the implementation of large-scale public awareness campaigns and the distribution of learning materials to communities.

Life in Nyarugusu

Nyarugusu Refugee Camp is 26 years old and has a population of 280,000 people living on a 9km wide plot. To give some comparison, that is the same size as the population of Newcastle. The first refugees to arrive in the nineties were fleeing violence and political discord in Democratic Republic of Congo, however the most recent influx has been from Burundi. Over 413,000 people are recorded as having fled violence in the country since 2015. The sudden influx forced the UNHCR to open two new refugee camps in Tanzania to accommodate them. Now over 279,000 people are spread between Nyarugusu, Mtenbelli and Nduta Refugee Camps. WLAC’s work in Nyarugusu has been so successful that UNHCR are currently sponsoring them to pilot their Paralegal and Community Awareness programmes in the two new camps.

This organisational success is truly heart-warming to see in person, as the 68-member strong paralegal unit in Nyarugusu greets me. The large group discuss their day-to-day activities, and highlight some examples of cases women come seeking justice for, including: domestic violence, property rights and divorce settlements. They tell me, again and again, how much they appreciate WLAC and Womankind for the services they provide, and the confidence that having international support for their work gives them. They are respected in the refugee camp for their knowledge of human rights and violence against women and girls, with other service providers often coming to them to seek advice.

Resilient women

While there, I meet Mbelechi (35), who fled Democratic Republic of Congo when she was 19:

My father was a farmer, he looked after four cows, but when the war started he fled one night and left the cows; the cattle ran away and the owners demanded a daughter as compensation … The owners of the cattle kept harassing my family. Eventually my brothers gave in and married me off to one of the harassers to appease them – I was 14 years old. My husband and in-laws mistreated me, even after having three children with him. I decided to escape and go to a refugee camp when I was 20. Two of my children died not long before I left and the family blamed me for their deaths.”

Mbelechi now has a new family, however, nearly 20 years since she left her abuser, he and his relatives have come to live in the camp as well:

“They have started stalking my family, demanding two of my children as blood payment for the two that died. My first husband sent me a message saying ‘they would come to take my children one night soon’. My current husband and I began to live in fear, causing problems in our marriage. It was at this time I approached WLAC for support.”

The paralegals visited Mbelechi and were able to intercede with the UNHCR to have her and her family moved to a different part of the camp. Additionally, WLAC and the local police Gender Desk filed a restraining order against him, and coordinated her new neighbours to form a community watch group to report any signs of her ex-husband in the area.

I am also introduced to Zaina (32), who came to understand her rights through WLAC counselling and confront her alcoholic husband about his behaviour:

“Coming to WLAC has provided me with a lot of learning, particularly about the rights of women and the rights of the child, rights that my husband has to respect. This has made me more confident, because I know I am not alone now, I have WLAC’s support.”

Zaina tells me how, through paralegal mediation, she was able to challenge her husband about his treatment of her, and his drinking habits. She convinced him to seek counselling for his alcoholism through a WLAC coordinated support group, and to hand-over some of his income to the upkeep of the family.


As I listen to Mbelechi and Zaina, I get a real sense of their endurance and determination to be able to live securely, and make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives. I appreciate their frustration, intermingled with fear at times, but finally their relief, and thanks to WLAC, for the assistance that has been provided and the rights they have reclaimed as a consequence.

One would hope that cases like Mbelechi’s and Zaina’s are exceptional; however, from my earlier discussion with the paralegals, who receive an average of 70 referrals a week, it is clear to me exactly why WLAC is so necessary in this context. The services they are providing directly to women have knock-on benefits within both their families and their communities, benefits that will hopefully enable more women to understand their rights, to learn about the services offered by WLAC and endeavour to pursue those rights in their everyday lives.

Find out how you can support more women like Mbelechi and Zaina to access their legal rights here.

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