LRA Guest Post:

Sexualised Violence and Subjugation on African women

by Bana Tesfamichael and Smret Gebreslassie (Project Officer), Refugee Rights Europe.

Thousands of African migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are embarking on difficult and dangerous journeys to reach Europe. Hence, African women are amongst the most vulnerable of the many trying to reach Europe who has been exposed to different forms of violence and exploitation. We use a higher overview that touches on African women, as gendered social actors whose lives have been affected by the alarming conditions that began in their home country and continues as they cross to Sudan, then to Libya and across the Sinai desert as they head for Europe.

The rate of African women that are fleeing and migrating is increasing, these women migrate for various reasons from their home country, the main factors being poverty, illiteracy and the ideology of patriarchy. Therefore, women’s migration has been a way to escape gender-based violence in their families and communities. From the interviews conducted in refugee camps in Brussels, sexual abuse is happening to women and girls from those who encounter the journey with them, notably due to male domination. Many share their stories with those they trust as they seek sanctuary and rely heavily on them for safety. These women face situations of vulnerability that are related to gender-based violence. They are victims of sexual violence upon making their way to Europe as many of them have been kidnapped and raped before reaching their destination. As being a woman, they are also vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual, physical and domestic violence.

Women crossing borders are at higher risk of sexual abuse and frequent rape as a result of persistent kidnapping. If these women are under the captivity of the smugglers, their futures are no longer in their control, what happens daily is at their mercy. They did not render their bodies willingly rather, they were forced, enslaved, beaten even killed in some circumstances. As stated by Collins, rape has been a fundamental tool of sexual violence directed against women (Collins, 2000. P.146) therefore, their situation coincides in intersecting oppression along with gender-based sexual violence. All things considered, such women are deceived in multiple forms: being involved in illegal migration forced rape they risk raping under the exploitation of the smugglers and would even be victims of diseases that make most of the women reluctant to reveal their situations what they undergo. In most cases their situation is under-reported as most of them are reluctant to reveal their situations hence, they are often forced to suffer in silence. Fear of being isolated from their society, many African women don’t want to expose their stories as a result of cultural factors. Many explain that they are from a society that sticks to patriarchal values, thus, many of them may not get support from their families and community. This would further affect their identification. As a result, African refugee women are traumatized and unwilling to open from fear of judgement and reliving the distress of the violence. The data collection process is challenging. Though few reported works are investigating sexual violence, there is still a need for an in-depth study of the matter.

Silvey roughly remarks, the understanding categories of migration patterns as “push and pull” factors (Silvey, R. 2004. P.492). As for African asylum-seeking women “pull and push” factors are the core reasons why they make these dangerous journeys away from their homeland. These are usually economic and social factors as there are fewer educational and employment opportunities available to them and many come from predominantly poor families. However, there are reasons of sexuality, that causes some woman to flee. However, women and girls have the highest risk of being trafficked when fleeing. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, women make up 51% of the overall number of trafficked persons, whereas girls make up 20%. Human trafficking is connected to labour exploitation, forced labour, slavery, and sexual exploitation. However, there is a progressively deceptive form of exploitation which is aided by human trafficking, these are sex tourism, organised marriages between women from developing countries and foreign nationals and recruiting domestic labours from developing countries to work in developed states.

According to the CEDAW Committee, trafficking establishes a major danger to women and girls fleeing conflict. In many cases, women and girls use ‘sex for survival’ as traffickers use them as their currency, and the only way these women can survive is through rape, which is to say sex in terms of survival (Wright, E. O. 2009 p.108). Traffickers and smugglers alike exercise their power over vulnerable individuals, the journey away from conflict comes at a costly price, when these women are abducted whilst seeking safety, those who are unable to pay the ransom were coerced into sex in exchange for life (Wright, E. O. 2009 p.108). Thousands of women and children have disappeared, seemingly abducted for purposes of trafficking-related exploitations. Many women and children asylum seekers from Somalia and Sudan have been kidnapped while travelling, sold and held captive in the Sinai desert or Libya, some are lured from refugee camps for reasons of exploitation through coercion.

Additionally, unaccompanied children from Sudan as well as, Afghanistan in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk in France are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced to commit crimes in return for a passage into the UK and Northern Ireland. Though, women and girls living in refugee camps are still very much vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers regularly exploit the desperation of asylum seekers in open camps by offering them assistance to relocate as the conditions in refugee camps are terrible as it is overpopulated and suffers from a lack of well-resourced services. This increase the likelihood that residents may take desperate measure to move away (Denselow, 2016).

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee has recognised unemployment and poverty as influences that increase opportunities for trafficking in women. This is for the most part crucial of refugee camps. Women and girls who have escaped conflict and reached a refugee camp are not beyond traffickers’ reach. Refugee women are predominantly vulnerable as they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, once they are housed among strangers, and in conditions where traditional social protection practices no longer subsist (UNHCR, para. 79). Many of the camps have small numbers of volunteers who provide asylum-seekers with emergency medical assistance. However, the lack of medical services and basic supplies has massively different consequences and effects for women than for men. Women endure sexual violence once they flee which may result in pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, in which cannot be properly attended to as there is a shortage in medicine and treatments by suitable, qualified staff (Gardam, Charlesworth, 2000:22).

An additional problem is the insufficient supply of reliable birth control, particularly in circumstances where sexual violence is recurrent. Reports have discovered that botched abortions make up 20-25% of maternal deaths amongst refugees and asylum seekers. In comparison to 13% of such deaths globally. Furthermore, women who carry their pregnancies to term have been understood to be more vulnerable to malnourishment, infection and risky birthing conditions. Women have clear, distinct gender-specific requirements in which the State must reflect and respect that by ensuring that it meets its duty and responsibility not to discriminate against different groups and to ensure equality. An example would be aid and relief workers treating the delivery of sanitary towels (or appropriate items provided the cultural practices of the women affected, as negligible and of minor concern and affair (Gardam, Charlesworth, 2000:22). States and communities should place more provisions to protect women and girls from all backgrounds, religions, and cultures, respectfully to protect their mental and physical state as they endure many difficulties along their journeys in seeking safety, as well as in places of refuge in refugee camps.



Bana Tesfamichael – (Programme Officer) – Refugee Rights Europe

Smret Gebreslassie (Project Officer) – Refugee Rights Europe



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