Women bear more than their fair share of the burdens left by the violent conflicts existing across Africa. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya recently visited a women’s shelter run by religious sisters near the Zimbabwe-South Africa border. There, he spoke to women trying to rebuild their lives and make sense of where they now find themselves. Here is the devastating story of Shakira, not her real name, who awaits a ray of hope in the form of recognised refugee status. Hope, that only the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) can give her. However, their present attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees only adds to the already grim picture that these women and children are forced to live with.
She is a beautiful young woman with a full smile and bright eyes. She wears her scarf, sometimes as a hijab and at other times around her neck in a secular fashion. She is 24 years old. Hers is a simple dream for her life, “I want to be happy”.
She is a refugee. Shakira fled the east of her native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) about a month ago. This was after she and others, boys and girls, from her village were captured by rebels and taken “far away into the mountains and the forest where it is not easy to get back home”.
Let us call her Shakira to protect her real identity.
Shakira lives in a women’s shelter near the South Africa-Zimbabwe Beitbridge border post.
The shelter is run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, a Catholic congregation of religious sisters. The building, formerly a church, has now been repurposed to accommodate various self-development projects.
Though it quickly evolved into a shelter for women fleeing economic hardships in Zimbabwe, today the shelter sees an ever-increasing number of Congolese women who, like Shakira, have fled particularly from the war-ravaged southeastern parts of that country.
Shakira says that she fled from her captors after she and another young woman were sent out to find firewood. “I don’t know what happened to the other girl. We lost each other in the forest”, she says.
She eventually found herself in Zambia and later on the back of a truck which she thought was taking her to Zimbabwe. She was surprised to find out that she was in South Africa.
Someone alerted her to the existence of the shelter run by the Sisters.
Many of the women at the shelter came with babies on their backs. A considerable number of them are also pregnant – and some will never know the fathers of the children they're expecting. Like Shakira, these women were raped and conceived children in the process.
She was first raped when she was abducted by rebels, who used her and other young women as sex slaves and also to provide domestic services, washing and cleaning for them.
Rape has become part of the high price that refugee women pay and expect to pay, as they make their way out of the conflict zones to what they hope will be greener pastures.
If Shakira is pregnant, she is neither saying nor showing. She is, however, heavily expectant in a very different way.
She hopes that the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) will recognise her as an asylum seeker and grant her all the benefits as described in the South African government's Refugees' Act so that she can pursue her dream of “being happy”.
On paper, Shakira’s case is an easy one. Hers is the textbook definition of a refugee and an asylum seeker.
South Africa has not only its national law; the Refugees' Act of 1998 which was amended in 2015. It is also a signatory of international agreements relating to refugees including the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
As a signatory of these various international statutes relating to refugees and asylum seekers, South Africa has committed itself and its people, to protecting and assisting refugees as required by the said laws and related conventions.
These rights include: not to be forcibly deported from the country except as provided for under international and national obligations; to join non-political and non-profit making associations and trade unions; to acquire movable and immovable assets; to work; to attend primary, secondary and tertiary education; to access secondary and tertiary healthcare; to be referred for further medical treatment; to an identity and travel documents and to pursue the unity of the family.
The DRC has been one of Africa’s most unstable countries since the mid-1990s. It suffers from what has become known as the resources curse. This is a situation where a country endowed with an abundance of natural resources such as gems or fossil fuels, still tends to have low economic growth, a weak democracy and poorer development than a country with far less natural resources. Most often, the inability to grow the economy and increase development is owed to deadly conflicts over the control of these resources.
This conflict is so grave in the DRC that South Africa has deployed a strong military contingent there.
Defence news portal, defenceWeb, reported in March this year that the presence of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the DRC typically comprises around 1 400 soldiers, military vehicles, helicopters and other specialised defence equipment. The 5 SA Infantry Battalion, a motorised infantry unit of the SANDF, is currently serving together with the United Nations’ MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade.
Shakira and her compatriots at the shelter are far from exceptional.
International NGO, World Vision reports that more than 2,5 million people in the provinces of Kasai, Tanganyika and South Kivu were displaced and dispossessed of their homes as a result of violent conflicts.
More than 500 000 DRC nationals now live as refugees in each of the nine countries with whom their native country shares its borders.
According to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the DRC 13,1 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection; of those 7,7 million are food insecure, marking an increase of 30% on previous years.
Despite these well-known and shockingly tragic facts, Shakira cannot simply expect to walk in at her nearest Home Affairs office and return home with a passport.
It is not unusual for asylum seekers and refugees to wait for up to three months to have their first batch of asylum seeker or refugee status papers issued.
This means that women like Shakira must either wait at the shelter for the papers, where job prospects are already extremely limited for citizens and even more for foreign nationals with all the right paperwork, let alone for Shakira. If she moves to a larger city in search of better work prospects, then she would need to spend her meagre earnings on return-trips in the often mistaken hope that her papers would have been issued.
So, Shakira has opted to wait.
Still, she cannot hide her impatience with how the circumstances of her life have forced her to live with greatly restricted independence.
“I cannot expect people to be always helping me out. I need to be able to stand on my own two feet. People are people. They too get tired of helping someone who cannot help herself. I need to get my papers and find work for myself.”
The ball is now in the court of the DHA. Only they can kickstart or severely hamper her much-desired pursuit for happiness. Her hope – and the hope of countless others whose lives now hang in the slow-churning bureaucratic balance.