Cablegate: Women Migrants in South Africa: A Hard Road To

Published: Tue 1 Sep 2009 02:36 PM
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1. In an August 27 panel discussion, three speakers
discussed the plight of female migrants in South Africa.
Compared to men, women on the move are more vulnerable to
robbery and attack, facing more limited job options, and
often encumbered by children. Border crossings are extremely
risky for rape, yet foreign women are especially reluctant to
seek help, for fear of police harassment or deportation.
Even as bona fide asylum applicants, migrants suffer ill
treatment or even denial of service by unsympathetic
government workers. The xenophobic violence of 2008 left
many women traumatized and alienated from families and
communities. Foreign women in the audience begged the
government to relaunch anti-xenophobia campaigns, as they
remained fearful and felt forgotten by the media. End
2. In keeping with Secretary Clinton's pledge to put women
at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, this look at one segment
of women -- those who migrate from abroad and from rural
areas -- is the first in a series of such profiles.
Greater Burdens, More Constraints
3. Dr. Ingrid Palmary, of Wits University's Forced Migration
Studies Programme (FMSP), characterized female migrants as
typically less 'visible' than males, and yet in myriad ways
far more exposed to risks. Despite a long tradition of women
participating in family mobility, academic studies of
migration are traditionally focused on male breadwinners. As
a result, "we know very little about women's livelihoods --
where they move to, and how they manage." Women's physical
vulnerability prompts them to keep lower profiles for safety,
while at the same time it disadvantages them in competing for
employment and requiring secure accomodation. Classic jobs
readily available to unskilled laborers, such as mining or
farm work, are geared to men's physical strength and housing
in male hostels.
4. Children, most often left in the charge of women,
compound the challenges of migration, making mobility itself
harder and costlier. Children complicate the search for a
job, since potential work hours are limited by available
child care, which in turn takes a big share of wages. While
all mothers face child care burdens, those of migrant women
are heavier since they have left behind their networks of
extended family. Accomodation is similarly more complicated
and expensive, including considerations of schooling. FMSP
research indicates migrants accompanied by children are more
likely to land in informal settlements, i.e. the country's
rougher shantytowns. Where possible, many women leave their
children behind in the home country or village, hoping to
send for them later.
"Just Rape" Is Not Grounds for Refuge
5. Women fall easier prey than men to physical attack, and
travelers far from home are doubly exposed, yet foreigners
are also the segment of women least likely to seek formal
protection or support. Vulnerability is highest, says
Palmary, along the country's borders with Zimbabwe and
Mozambique, where syndicates of smugglers and criminals
routinely rob and rape travelers crossing rivers and bushland
into South Africa. (This has implications for policy: the
FMSP warns that tighter border control, instead of
QFMSP warns that tighter border control, instead of
facilitated migration, increases threats to women.) In a
country where even local citizens report rape to the police
only rarely (in an estimated one in nine cases), migrants'
fear of police harassment and deportation acts as an
additional deterrent to seeking police protection. These
fears, coupled with routine ill-treatment of foreigners by
front-line government workers, make female migrants most
loathe to seek medical treatment, counseling, and legal
support in incidents of gender violence.
6. Palmary says the SAG's asylum decisions reflect
discrimination against women, by revealing an underlying
attitude that gender violence is endemic and ordinary, and
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hence not a basis for asylum. Palmary rates South Africa's
Refugee Act as "the most progressive in the world," and
"groundbreaking" in explicitly recognizing gender violence as
a form of persecution (cf. the war in DR Congo) -- but FMSP
finds that in practice the SAG does not rule accordingly.
Palmary asserts there is a tendency (denied by Home Affairs)
to classify countries as "safe" or "unsafe" in blanket terms,
whereas in reality many societies not at war may still be
very brutal against their most vulnerable members. (As an
aside, Palmary challenges: with South Africa's extremes of
violent crime, can it be truly considered "post conflict"?)
Verdicts in asylum cases suggest a bias that "just rape,"
even if recurrent or pervasive, is not enough cause to flee.
Denied Services (Even with Papers)
7. Dosso Ndessomin, of the Coordinating Body for Refugee
Communities (CBRC), highlighted the hurdles faced by migrant
women in accessing public services. Employment, health care,
and schooling hinge on asylum application papers (called
"Section 22" permits per the Refugee Act), which require
persistence in long queues (and some would say bribes) to
obtain and regularly renew. Migrants often report, however,
that these documents are not honored by SAG employees.
Ndessomin recalls a 2006 case of a Somali woman, in
possession of a Section 22 permit, who gave birth outside
Johannesburg General Hospital after staff would not admit
her. A common problem is that women cannot open bank
accounts without a "proof of residence," when their homes may
be abroad or in husbands' names. From all the constraints
described above, single mothers are least able to access
services for their children: CBRC has a roster of nearly
5,000 such kids not attending school. Women come to CBRC for
help, says Ndessomin, "with so few resources -- it's like
Onus on Migrants to Integrate
8. Ndessomin notes that the range of hardships faced by
foreigners can cause them to become discouraged and
withdrawn, yet paradoxically the onus is on them to reach out
to host communities. A common syndrome, he says, is for
African migrants to arrive in South Africa with inflated
expectations of a better life, only to be quickly
disappointed. In its outreach visits to diverse migrant
groups, the CBRC stresses that foreigners must introduce
themselves to host communities and increase interactions in
order to integrate. Several community-level initiatives are
reportedly now underway, led by NGOs like the Mandela
Foundation and Caritas Peace Initiative. (Note: the Somali
Community Board, inter alia, has also sought USG funding for
such outreach, teaching Somali shopkeepers to build bridges
with customers. End note.) Social ties not only help
migrants feel at home, but they also help to counter
xenophobic threats in troubled townships.
Trauma Effects of Xenophobic Attacks
9. Marivic Garcia-Mall of the Centre for the Study of
Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) described the
psychological impact on female migrants of 2008's xenophobic
violence, as observed at CSVR's Trauma Clinic in
Johannesburg. After the initial shocks of threats to their
QJohannesburg. After the initial shocks of threats to their
lives and expulsion from their shacks, displaced migrants
taking refuge at the SAG's temporary shelter sites were
subject to sexual abuse, compelled to engage in prostitution
to support their kids, and at risk of rape in nighttime
visits to unlit toilets. Women at these sites showed
symptoms of post-traumatic stress: jumpiness, paranoia,
hopelessness, low self-esteem and self-blame, disassociation
from acutely painful events, and cognitive disorders.
Mothers displayed impatience and aggression toward their own
children, aggravated by the clinging behavior of traumatized
kids, and domestic violence erupted in previously peaceful
families. Elevated levels of stress and hostility led to
fights in food lines, and to isolation of many women. In
effect, abuse and alienation already suffered as foreign
migrants were amplified during displacement. On
reintegration into townships, women started their lives over
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facing the same hurdles as on their initial arrival in South
Migrants to SAG: Please Fight Xenophobia
10. The audience, composed largely of foreign women, agreed
with panelists' assessments and vehemently urged renewed
attention to the plight of migrants in South Africa. A
Congolese woman wondered what had happened to last year's
media coverage, which had spiked during xenophobic attacks
(May-June 2008) but then sputtered out thereafter. Joyce
Dube of the South African Women's Institute for Migration
Affairs (SAWIMA; 2008 recipient of a USG refugee grant) spoke
of the positive impact of SAWIMA workshops in townships, led
by Zimbabweans who use roleplay to convey their experiences
to South African youths. A Somali man wondered what had
happened to the "Roll Back Xenophobia" campaign, a joint
effort of UNHCR and the South African Human Rights Commission
(SAHRC) some years ago. Audience members buttonholed an
SAHRC officer in the audience and begged for renewed focus on
their needs. After the xenophobic violence of 2008, migrants
are still fearful for their safety, and now that media has
moved on to other stories they also feel forgotten.
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