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Women — the invisible face of migration

Having spent some time at the Scalabrinian-run Bienvenu Women’s Shelter in Johannesburg, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya reflects on how women are still largely invisible in conversations around migration and xenophobia. He shines a light on some of the challenges and dangers migrant women face.

Xenophobic episodes in South Africa have become commonplace. Hardly a month passes without foreign nationals living and working in South Africa’s townships being forced to pack their goods and flee from where they live. 

In a recent incident in early August, police carried out raids in Johannesburg’s inner city shops — mostly foreign-owned — selling counterfeit goods. The shop owners confronted the police to protect their goods. Outraged by the confrontation, a mob armed with crude weapons attacked the foreigners.

Commentator Jan Bornman has observed a surge in xenophobic language, not only in South Africa but also across the world. We can witness this in acts of “everyday” xenophobia where individual foreign nationals, especially those from other African states, endure verbal and physical abuse at the hands of the police, Home Affairs, hospitals and ordinary citizens.

Yet, in many ways, xenophobia has developed a “male face”. One ever hardly hears of how foreign women are “stealing our men”. The image of the “Nigerian drug dealer” that comes to mind is always male.

When African nationals pelted police officers with stones and other objects in central Johannesburg, the photographs showed mostly men defending their goods.

… in many ways, xenophobia has developed a “male face”.

Where were the women?

Invisible Women

As with many aspects of life, women tend to be invisible, silent and peripheral. Conversations around political asylum seekers evokes mental images of men who are hounded out of their countries because of their political views.

We hear of male homosexuals seeking asylum because of persecution in their home countries, like Uganda. Stories of lesbian refugees are less likely to make the headlines.

Migration, its causes and society’s response too often forgets the woman and the additional dangers that displacement poses for them. And when women flee, they don’t leave alone. They bring their children, who also become soft targets for those who prey on the vulnerable..

Girls and women are always the spoils of war in areas such as eastern Congo. Women know that if captured, they do not just become trophies, but are also forced to be sex slaves and maids for the soldiers. We need only think of what happened to the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

WATCH — Beyond the Chibok girls: Inside Nigeria’s IDP Camps // 60 Minutes, YouTube

Those who manage to successfully get to the refugee camps on the other side of the border, or to countries such as South Africa, often face the moral dilemma of whether or not to trade their own bodies in exchange of food and other necessities of life such as soap and sanitary pads.

With South Africa’s disturbingly high numbers of sexual violence against women, foreign women without any visible community are an easy prey for sex predators. Or worse, they find themselves in the hands of human traffickers.

Scalabrini Sisters provide a place of safety for refugee women

Centres such as Bienvenu Shelter for Refugee Women and their Children, run by the Missionaries Sisters of St Charles Borromeo — or Scalabrinians as they are better known — are centres of welcome and shelter for women on their difficult journey.

Every day, the religious sisters live out the Scripture “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in…” (Matt 25: 35 -36)

The centre provides safe accommodation for up to 135 migrant and displaced women and their children. The crèche on the site provides early childhood education for about 60 children ranging from new-borns to six years.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in…”

Matt 25:35-36

Bienvenu Shelter provides English classes and skills training courses that include child minding, sewing, beauty care, baking and hairdressing. In some cases, women receive business start-up kits to take their future into their own hands.

The centre continues to provide support for women after they leave the centre by giving them blankets, clothes, food parcels, transport to hospitals and Home Affairs offices to sort out their resident status and when necessary, access to legal and health care and funeral support.

The founder of the Scalabrinians, Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini once said: “Seeds migrate on the wings of the wind, trees migrate from continent to continent carried by currents of water, birds and all animals migrate, but more than anything else, people migrate…”

The bottom line is that people migrate; often it is a result of fear or necessity that drives them from their homes. The journey is fraught with danger, but staying is even more dangerous. But for those making the decision to leave home, it is women who are most vulnerable. They are also the most invisible.

People migrate. What welcome do they find on the other side?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.