Women Migrants in South Africa Suffer Violence Long After 2008 Xenophobic Attacks
In January 2008, Patricia (not her real name) left the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC) without any legal travel documents and
began her journey southwards to South Africa.
"I was running away from political persecution," says the burly
woman in her late twenties. "I used to work as a human rights
activist in a non-governmental organization (NGO) that deals with
female victims of war and poverty. As part of my job, I
disseminated information on the violation of women and children's
Three of her colleagues were killed during their work, prompting
her to flee. Trekking and catching buses and trains when she could,
Patricia found her way through Burundi, Tanzania and Mozambique,
finally entering South Africa three months later through the
"I needed to get as far away from DRC as possible," she says
with a sigh. "I just wanted to forget those horrific images that
had become part of my daily life. I also needed to support my poor
family back at home. So I sought asylum in South Africa."
"">Message of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on International Migrants
But starting a new life in Primrose township in South Africa's
Gauteng province proved tougher than she had envisaged. Barely two
months after she arrived, she was caught in a new wave of violence
– attacks on foreign nationals across several townships in
the country which left 62 people dead and several hundred thousands
"I was coming back from church when I saw a group of people
running in different directions. Some were speaking in their local
languages, others in English and shouting. Since I could understand
neither English nor the local languages, I was confused," she
In the mayhem, Patricia was pushed to the ground and robbed of
her money and mobile phone. When she got home, her flatmate told
her that migrants were being attacked by locals who wanted
foreigners to leave the country immediately.
Fortunately, Patricia did not suffer the fate of hundreds of
thousands of other migrants – no-one came back to chase her
from her flat. However, she felt traumatised, hardly speaking,
eating or sleeping for two weeks.
"I wished I had stayed home [in the DRC] and died as a heroine
rather than to die here where I will not be identified. I missed my
life and my family. I could not work. I could not go out anywhere.
How would I pay my bills?" she worried.
Patricia's story gives an insight into the challenging world of
the female migrant. Women and unaccompanied minors who have to
travel through land borders into South Africa are vulnerable to
robbery, rape and abuse, especially if they are being smuggled. The
risks are higher if they have to travel to and from their countries
repeatedly, as is the case of some cross-border traders.
Once in South Africa, women migrants often have to care for
children and work at the same time in an environment that does not
give them access to labour, social and health services. This leaves
many of them on the brink of survival and renders them extremely
vulnerable to sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and health
problems. The vulnerability of these women is heightened by
incidents such as the attacks on foreign nationals that erupted in
May 2008, and which have made sporadic reappearances since
Marivic Garcia-Mall is a senior trauma counsellor at the Centre
for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and works with
women dealing with the consequences of violence and abuse.
According to her, many migrant women who experienced the May 2008
attacks suffer symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder,
low self-esteem, self-blame, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, intense
feelings of anger and aggression, depression, bodily pain and
increased vulnerability to physical illness, identity problems,
drug abuse, and a sense of hopelessness.
Their recovery is hindered by the continued difficulty they face
in accessing social services and economic opportunities.
A month after the May 2008 attacks, Patricia fell ill. At the
hospital, a nurse requested that she pay R100 as consultation fee
instead of R20 because she was an asylum-seeker.
"Does your country send medication to South Africa? You
foreigners are exploiting us. How can you come here and expect us
to give you the medication for free?" the nurse reportedly asked
As a result, Patricia distrusts South African public services,
including the police, and chooses to rely on a closely-knit
fraternity of compatriots whenever she has a problem. She is scared
of being identified as a foreigner, and lives in constant fear,
especially when she comes into contact with South Africans.
"When I get into a taxi, I am scared to talk to the driver
because I could be recognized as a foreigner. The sound of
fireworks brings back memories of the attacks," she explains.
Patricia thinks that migrant women are the least likely to get
jobs, especially when they are asylum seekers. This, she says, has
led many of her compatriots to resort to prostitution in order to
However, she is determined to remain in Primrose and is
optimistic about the future. She believes that one day she will
find acceptance in South Africa and looks forward to playing a
bigger role in her host community.
"South Africa is a good country. Some people commit
violence against us as migrants because of ignorance. They feel we
are here to hurt them and to take away their jobs. We are here
because of circumstances and would like them to know that we
consider them as our brothers and sisters," Patricia
According to Garcia-Mall, being a woman migrant in South Africa
is challenging, not least because of poverty and violence.
This is aggravated by ongoing violence. During the May 2008
attacks, many migrant families lost all their belongings and
sources of livelihood. The end result is that a disproportionate
burden has been placed on many, already vulnerable, women.
"They have to labour on a day-to-day basis for food –
which is quite a challenge because they have children to take care
of – in cases where husbands can no longer provide. Many have
tried to rebuild relationships and to earn an income through
creative strategies. But in the end, it makes them even more
vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation," says
Another migrant woman, Lindiwe (real name withheld), arrived in
May 2007 in South Africa from Zimbabwe. She was pregnant. She
travelled irregularly through the Beitbridge border with her
husband, and upon entry in South Africa, her husband was deported,
forcing her to seek shelter at a church in Johannesburg. She later
moved to Pumula, near Johannesburg and started a petty business
producing and selling shampoo and dishwashing liquid. With that she
managed to pay the bills and to send some money back home to
support her family.
Shortly afterwards, in May 2008, the attacks on migrants
started. She was forced to abandon her business and all her
property and flee to another township, Honeydew. There she met a
property owner who promised her accommodation and in the process,
raped her. He threatened to kill her if she reported him to the
police. Three days later, she summoned the courage to go to the
police, but they turned her away, taking no action against her
rapist. To make matters worse, she was then raped by the
landlord's cousin. This time she did not approach the
police. She later tested HIV-positive.
Lindiwe has been struggling to survive since then. After giving
birth to a baby girl, she managed to find employment as an HIV/AIDS
coordinator for an NGO which subsequently ran out of funds. She now
survives by distributing flyers on the streets with her daughter
strapped to her back.
Despite these experiences, Lindiwe remains hopeful.
"I know it is difficult to live as a migrant woman in a foreign
country," she says with mixed emotions. "I used to make dishwashing
liquid and shampoo but I lost everything in the
attacks. I have a 22-month-old baby to feed. I distribute
flyers on the street just to make ends meet. I know things will be
better in the coming days because I have ideas and I know can make
a difference if given the opportunity," she says.
Although many migrant women such as Lindiwe remain resilient,
the physical and emotional burden of their experiences is daunting.
It is, therefore, critically important to highlight their
vulnerability to violence and abuse while taking measures to
empower them by ensuring they are economically independent and able
to contribute even more to their families and communities.
As Marivic Garcia-Mall explains, "Migrant women are not a
threat. They are a very valuable resource. The women are
strong and resilient. They care for everybody else even to their
own detriment. The abuse they suffer doesn't only come from their
partners but also from the system because it does not provide them
with the necessary assistance they need."
For IOM, addressing the vulnerability of migrants the world over
is at the core of its operations. In South Africa, the
Organization plays a key role in trying to diminish the abuse and
exploitation of migrants, including women, through initiatives such
as the Southern African Counter-trafficking Assistance Programme
(SACTAP) and health programmes.
In a bid to counter the growing xenophobia in the country, IOM's
ONE Movement has been working to promote integration, equality and
respect for the human rights of migrants, while building the
capacity of public services to understand and uphold migrants'
"The fact that xenophobic attacks continue to occur makes it
imperative that we continue to work hard at the issue because the
consequences of such attacks go beyond the actual act of violence.
The tragedy is that lives are ruined in some shape or form through
ignorance and intolerance. We have to turn that around," says
Bernardo Mariano, IOM's Regional Representative for Southern
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