When I ran away from home, there was no security, and when I came to South Africa, there is no security; it happens here too.

These are the words of a 20-year-old resident of Burundi who fled her country to seek asylum in South Africa. Her experience, which she shared with us while researching asylum-seeking and refugee women in South Africa, is unfortunately not unique. Many women who flee violence in the hope of finding safety and protection in South Africa are still vulnerable and at risk.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that South Africa currently hosts 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Many others probably remain undocumented. And although there is still no exact data on the number of women and men, it is estimated that in 2015, 35% of asylum applications were submitted by women. Many of them fled sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin.

South Africa’s asylum and refugee policies have been praised in the past for their willingness to integrate gender issues. But there are gaps between intention and implementation. Women seeking protection remain vulnerable and at risk. This creates a “continuum of violence” against women asylum seekers and refugee women: different forms of violence intersect and occur in different settings and locations, from the women’s countries of origin to their destination, South Africa.

Our research examined gender-specific forms of violence and instability targeting women asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa. That’s not to say that men aren’t victims, too. But our research shows that women are more vulnerable to these types of violence than men.

Ongoing conflicts in many countries in the region mean that women will continue to flee in significant numbers to seek protection in South Africa. This protection is simply not available in the current environment. Perpetuation of deprivation and vulnerability to violence has long-term consequences for the health and well-being of these women.

Violence at home, violence in South Africa

Our research was conducted in Durban, South Africa, in collaboration with Refugee Social Services and Refugee Pastoral Care, two local NGOs working directly with migrants and refugees. We spoke to women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. The interviews aimed to explore the experiences of women who encountered sexual and gender-based violence during their travels and upon arrival in South Africa.

Almost all of the women we interviewed had been sexually assaulted in their countries of origin or while traveling to South Africa. Consequently, many have struggled with trauma, unwanted pregnancy, HIV infection, or other sexually transmitted infections. One of the interlocutors shared her terrible experience:

When we left Lubumbashi from the border, I used a truck and they just put us in a container. There were five people in the container and I was the only female along with four males… I just met them in the container. They forced me and raped me on the way. (38-year-old asylum seeker from the DRC)

Arriving in South Africa does not mean the end of their ordeal. It is also difficult to apply for asylum and obtain legal status. Three of the country’s first five refugee reception centers have been closed to new applications since 2011. The remaining branches were completely closed in the midst of the COVID pandemic and did not reopen until April 2022. Getting a statement is very difficult and takes a lot of time. make an appointment at one of these centers. Following the pandemic, the Home Office launched an online system for asylum extensions and new applications. However, asylum seekers continue to face problems reporting failures in the system, and most of those we met who submitted their applications received no feedback.

When asylum permits were issued, they lasted only three to six months. After that, women had to travel long distances for renewal; sometimes appointments were unavailable. In some cases, husbands left their families to start new families elsewhere. In such cases, wives who were registered in their husbands’ cases found it difficult to renew their claim. This left them undocumented. As one woman, a 33-year-old resident of Burundi, explained:

He left in September and I don’t even know where he went. I don’t even have his number… I have a six month permit but it expired during the lockdown (Covid) and now I don’t even know what I’m going to do when internal affairs opens because I can’t renew there because I don’t have a file there. I was part of my husband’s file and I won’t know until they reopen if they are going to help me.

The lack of documentation meant that women found it difficult to access basic social services, health care or employment, and to register their children in schools. Such legal and economic insecurity increased their vulnerability to violence and created barriers to accessing services when they became victims of violence.

The lack of accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees means that some women end up sleeping on the streets or becoming dependent on others (often men) for accommodation.

Economic instability is a major factor in vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. These circumstances also support engaging in transactional sex in order to survive.

Serious gaps

Difficulty obtaining refugee status, lack of housing and economic support, and lack of access to social services put women at risk of repeated violence. And while organizations such as Refugee Social Services do strive to provide services and support, they cannot compensate for the serious gaps in services and provision for refugee women.

More efforts are needed to create a system that facilitates the asylum application process and to provide free assistance to asylum seekers in obtaining legal documents. This will mean that they can access education, employment and social services, which will reduce their vulnerability. Allowing individual asylum claims, even when married, that are not dependent on the male partner being the owner of the file, will eliminate gender structures that perpetuate legal insecurity for women and their children.

More attention needs to be paid to the mental health and well-being of refugee survivors of sexual violence. Providing refugees with safe places to meet and socialize and offering support through community-based peer learning programs can be an important source of information, referral networks and social support.

Jane Friedman, Professor of Sociology, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS); Marcia Victoria Mutambara, Research Associate, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Tamarin Crankshaw, Program Manager, Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Unit (HEARD), University of KwaZulu-Natal

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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