Sixty-five-year-old Mama Elizabeth hums a song as she arranges dishes in a corner of her small grass-thatched hut in a remote part of South Sudan. From the outside, it may look like any other hut, but it’s much more than that.

A refugee from Sudan, Mama Elizabeth is one of 48 volunteers, known as ‘guardian angels,’ who advocate against sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee camps where they live. Her home is a temporary safe shelter for survivors of such violence.

Since 2016, community leaders like her have opened their homes to host people in need, under a UNHCR-supported initiative serving over 140,000 refugees in Maban County.

“The last time I hosted someone was two weeks ago,” says Mama Elizabeth, referring to a woman called Sarah – just one of the many people Mama Elizabeth has helped over her past few years in Doro refugee camp.

Beaten by her husband and then by her brother, Sarah sought shelter with Mama Elizabeth when the abuse became too much to bear. Scared and concerned for her safety, she explains that she went to Mama Elizabeth for “peace of mind and shelter.”


Mama Elizabeth is one of 48 volunteers in Maban County, South Sudan, who advocate against sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee camps where they live, and offer support for survivors. © UNHCR/M. Osire

For Mama Elizabeth, making the decision to help people like Sarah was an easy one.

“When the community asked me to take on this role, I accepted because I am always happy to help women. I am committed to assist people who are in need. But sometimes it is difficult, of course.”

For many survivors of sexual violence in Maban County, guardian angels like Mama Elizabeth offer nothing less than a lifeline in a situation of despair.

Displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable to rape and other forms of conflict-related sexual violence, including forced marriage, sexual exploitation and genital mutilation. Living in camps and settlements in remote locations, survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are often unable to access urgent care and many hide their suffering due to stigma and shame.

“There was one survivor whose son wanted to kill her,” says Mama Elizabeth, remembering one of her hardest but most fulfilling experiences as a guardian angel.

“She wanted to just go to the forest and die there. I was coming from the water point and I heard some people making noise. When I got there, I found this woman had actually totally refused to listen to anybody. When I talked to her, the woman was able to listen to me and she followed me [home] and we stayed together.”

Displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence, which includes rape, child marriage, forced prostitution and trafficking. © UNHCR/B. Sokol


As well as volunteering as a guardian angel, Mama Elizabeth has also served as a representative for refugee women like herself and received UNHCR-supported training on topics such as early marriage.

“Before I started attending the workshops, I did not see anything wrong with early marriage,” she says. “It was part of our culture. But after all these trainings, I have really come to see the bad part of early marriage. When a girl is married early, there is no opportunity for her to still pursue education. I think education is very important.”

With the support of generous donors, UNHCR and partners are able to train local leaders like Mama Elizabeth to recognise abuse and advocate against it. This is just as important as putting up the tents or building the mud huts in which survivors are housed.

“Guardian angels are local leaders who are highly respected by the refugees and host community,” explains UNHCR Protection Officer Grace Atim.

“These individuals have the ability to stand up to perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence. They also serve as role models in the refugee camps and within the host community.”

Mama Elizabeth inside her small grass-thatched hut in a remote part of South Sudan

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