Next to Nyatoni Row’s round, thatch-roofed home are a few tree limbs, lying in a tangle on the ground. It looks like a pile of wood she will use for cooking food for her family. This is only partly true: The wood is also her sole source of income she uses to educate her children and herself.
“I go to the bush, find a tree, and cut it into pieces so it will be easier for me to carry it,” she says, holding up a well-used machete she uses to hack apart the trees. “I cut it into pieces, pick one, carry it, and go back. I might repeat this three times, going to the bush and coming back, going to the bush and coming back. I keep some and I sell some, to bring money.”
It’s a tough way to make a living, but she has few options. 35 years old mother of four, Row is, a refugee from South Sudan who lives in the Nguenyyiel refugee camp in the Gambella Region in western Ethiopia She mainly survives on food aid from the United Nations World Food Programme, and uses Oxfam-supported water piped into Nguenyyiel that is also providing her family with a latrine that she shares with neighbors.
“We have no money to buy this in the market, and, as we are women, we need Dignity Kits."
Row says Oxfam is doing essential work to provide water to the six camps in Gambella and nearby communities that are hosting more than 375,000 South Sudanese refugees. “Oxfam plays a vital role in providing water and sanitation to us. We have latrines, and we have water supply through pipelines.”
The firewood she sells helps pay for all her other needs, including clothing, shoes and school fees for her children. “It brings me 150 Birr per day,” ($2.75) she says. “And within 10 days I get good money, like 1,000 Birr ($19).” She’s also covering the costs of her education: she now has a bachelor’s degree, earned when she came to Ethiopia six years ago. After she pays for all the education costs, she says, “I am left with a few Birr for other basic needs like shoes for my children.”
In past years, Oxfam was able to provide Dignity Kits to women refugees. These include soap and other hygiene items, as well as underwear and menstrual pads. Row notes that refugees are missing this support, discontinued due to budget cuts. “We have no money to buy this in the market,” Row says. “And, as we are women, we need Dignity Kits."
Risks For Women
Working in the bush cutting and gathering firewood has its risks, especially for women. When alone in the forest, women are vulnerable to sexual assault. Row began to help women who have survived the assault, finding them the medical and psychological services they need. Her work as a volunteer and interest in helping women led her to training sessions with Oxfam and other organizations active in the Nguenyyiel camp, primarily in promoting good hygiene.
“The more we get these trainings, the more it helps us take care of our children, and avoid disease, like eye infections, diarrhea, as well as bacterial dysentery, and skin diseases,”
In addition, coming together with other women made her realize they need to support each other more. After attending women’s leadership training sessions, she was inspired to collaborate with others to create a women’s organization in Nguenyyiel that will encourage women to stay safe, create ways to be financially independent, and support their families. First, she tried to help women cut firewood to be safer. “I always tell them not to move alone, it is always good to move as a group, because where we collect firewood, it is a distance of two hours, it's far from here,” Row explains.
Row and other women in Nguenyyiel is also helping women become more confident and independent, so they do not have to rely on men if they find themselves in an abusive relationship. “Our husbands are our main resource,” Row says. “We have no other resources apart from their contribution, but when you disagree with someone who supports you, you have nowhere to go,” she says. Row encourages women to find business training, so they can earn money and have some level of financial independence. Beyond cutting firewood, Row says “Some employ themselves as cooks, they make tea, they cook foods in the local market.” This encourages women to earn their income so they can be able to take care of their children.
Oxfam prioritizes training and collaboration with refugee leaders, and where possible supports refugee-led organizations in Gambella. Row is also a co-director of a refugee youth organization. Oxfam is helping these refugee-led organisations to write its by-laws, apply for a license to operate as a community service organisation, open a bank account, and fund peace-building campaigns among young people from the various ethnic groups in the refugee camps.
Faith In The Future
Like hundreds of others displaced by war, Row came to Ethiopia six years ago when fighting broke out in South Sudan. She walked for weeks to get here, carrying a 1-month-old infant and a 2-year-old. She has been struggling to feed, clothe, and educate her family, but derives considerable satisfaction as a woman leader because she has great hopes for the future when the war ends and she and all the women in Nguenyyiel can return home to South Sudan.
“When I go back to South Sudan, with other women, we know how to read and write, it will be very easy for us to create a structure for how we can change things for women,” she says. She says better training and education will help women be less vulnerable and more independent. “When we go back to South Sudan we will be recognized as citizens. I am very proud because they are my people.” The challenges are great but Row’s story is that of compassion and on this World Refugee Day, Oxfam celebrates Row and millions of refugees helping each other amid many challenges.