HA 012: Imvepi

Life after war for the South Sudanese women of Imvepi Refugee Settlement

Words and images by Matilde Simas | Website | Instagram

Editor’s note: Multiple names have been changed to protect the identity of the women featured in this story.

In 2013, civil war broke out in South Sudan, plunging the country into a period of violence, economic decline, disease and hunger. Millions fled the war’s atrocities which included forced recruitment into sexual slavery and armed groups. Approximately 80 percent of the refugees were women and children, with children accounting for 63 percent of the total refugee population. Many have found refuge just inside the Ugandan border in places like Imvepi Refugee Settlement, where they are protected from the horrors of the war but face a new selection of challenges. The European Commission estimates that as of 2021, some 2 million South Sudanese have fled the country and half of them have settled in Uganda.

Located on the border of South Sudan and northern Uganda, the Imvepi Refugee Settlement was established in February 2017 to accommodate the influx of South Sudanese asylum seekers.  Upon arrival in the dusty and arid Imvepi Settlement, refugees receive a plot of land on which to build their new homes and grow crops. As refugees, they are also given access to public services such as clean water, food aid, healthcare and education. While many countries keep refugees in camps, away from citizens, Uganda allows them to set up businesses, work for others and move freely around the country. Despite this constructive approach to resettlement, many refugees in Imvepi still struggle due to insufficient access to food and water, poor sanitation and illness, scarcity of firewood and threats to their personal safety. There are no paved roads or transportation (either private or public), so residents must walk long distances to carry out even basic tasks.

Many of the women living in the settlement face an added layer of struggle in that, according to UNICEF, more than half of South Sudanese girls are forced into marriage while still children themselves. Of the refugees interviewed for this project, many discuss the challenge of meeting their own basic needs in Impevi let alone those of their small children. Tonia, a 19-year-old mother of two said, “I struggle to feed my two children. I often have to sell some of my food to have money for things like linens or other basic household things." Sitima Joy, another young mother, said, “I’m not able to care for my family because I’m too young. I’m unable to care for my baby.” Ann, 19 years old at the time of reporting, says she too struggles to feed her now three-year-old son. “I wake up in the morning. I prepare for my baby. He needs medication, but it’s not there. I prepare his food. Food is only once a day. The concern is water and food, it is not enough for us.” 

Tonia poses for a photograph walking with food collected from the Word Food Organization program to her home in the Imvepi Refugee Settlement. February 2020.
Amana Cicila, a 20-year-old trauma survivor and single mother from South Sudan, sits in front of her house built with the assistance of the UNHCR in Imvepi Refugee Settlement. February 2020. 
Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in Africa with over 1.4 million refugees & asylum seekers as of February 29, 2020. They are spread across 13 districts (Adjumani, Arua, Moyo, Yumbe, Lamwo, Kiryandongo, Kyegeegwa, Kamwenge, Isingiro, Obongi, Koboko, Kikuube) with another 80,000 refugees in Kampala City.
A 20-year-old South Sudanese refugee mother and her son pose for a photo during a community information session about food and water shortage, personal safety and the emerging issue of COVID-19 in Imvepi Refugee Settlement. February 2020. 

Dealt a hand in life they did not ask for, these women remain resolute and resilient in the face of the struggles they confront daily. They’re able to find empowerment in banding together to collect firewood, food and water, and their strength in numbers is formidable. They are also some of the lucky few who are receiving psychological and livelihood support from an organization working in the settlement, as well as access to a positive community space where activities like games, hair braiding and religious gatherings are put on.

While daily life in Imvepi Refugee Settlement brings its challenges, many of those that are there are looking to the future like Sabrina, a 20-year-old mother of two who is participating in a soap-making workshop and aspires to one day have her own business selling her home goods.

To learn more about these women and their stories, watch Forced to Marry by Capture Humanity.