When I ran away from home there was no safety, and when I came to South Africa there is no safety; it’s also happening here.
These are the words of a 20-year-old Burundian woman who fled her home country to seek asylum in South Africa. Her experience – which she told us about in our research on women asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa – is, sadly, not unique. Many women who flee violence in the hope of finding safety and protection in South Africa instead find themselves still vulnerable and at risk.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that South Africa currently hosts 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Many more probably remain undocumented. And while there are still no accurate data about numbers of women and men, estimates suggest that in 2015, 35% of asylum claims were made by women. Many of them fled sexual and gender-based forms of violence in their countries of origin.
South African asylum and refugee policy has been praised in the past for its 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 asylum seeking and refugee women: different forms of violence intersect and occur across in different settings and locations, from women’s countries of origin to their destination, South Africa.
Our research examined the specific gendered forms of violence and precarity directed at women asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa. This is not to say men aren’t victimised, too. But our research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to these kinds of violence.
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 simply isn’t available in the current conditions. Continuing precarity and vulnerability to violence has long term consequences for these women’s health and well-being.
Violence at home, violence in South Africa
Our research was carried out 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 women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence on their journeys and on arrival in South Africa.
Nearly all the women we interviewed had been subjected to sexual violence in their countries of origin, or on the journey to South Africa. Consequently many were grappling with trauma, unwanted pregnancies, infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. One interviewee shared her harrowing 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 woman together with four males … I just met them inside the container. They forced themselves on me and they raped me along the way. (38 year old asylum seeker from DRC)
Arriving in South Africa doesn’t mean an end to their ordeal. It’s also hard to make an asylum claim and gain legal status. Three of the original five refugee reception offices around the country have been closed to new applications since 2011. The remaining offices were closed completely during the height of the COVID pandemic and only reopened in April 2022. It is very difficult and time consuming to get an appointment at one of these centres. In the aftermath of the pandemic the Department of Home Affairs launched an online system for asylum renewals and new applications. However, asylum seekers still face challenges noting failures with the system, and most of those we met who had submitted their applications had not received any feedback.
When asylum permits were granted, these lasted only between three and six months. After that women had to travel long distances for renewals; sometimes appointments were not available. In some cases, husbands had left their families to start new families elsewhere. In such instances, wives who had been registered as part of their husbands’ files found it difficult to renew their claim. This left them undocumented. As one woman, a 33-year-old from Burundi, explained:
He left in September and I do not even know where he went. I do not even have his number … I have the six monthly permit but then it expired during the (COVID) lockdown and now I do not even know what I am going to do if Home Affairs open because I can’t renew there because I don’t have a file there. I was part of my husband’s file and I will only know when they reopen if they are going to help me.
The lack of documentation meant it was difficult for women to obtain basic social services, healthcare or employment, and to register their children in schools. This legal and economic insecurity reinforced their vulnerabilities to violence and created obstacles to accessing services if they were victims of violence.
Lack of accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees means that some women end up sleeping in the street or becoming dependent on others (often men) for accommodation.
Economic precarity is a major factor in creating vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. These circumstances also underpin engagement in transactional sexual relationships to survive.
The difficulties in gaining refugee status, a lack of accommodation and economic support, and lack of access to social services place women in danger of repeated violence. And while organisations such as Refugee Social Services do aim to provide services and support, they cannot make up for the serious gaps in services and provision for women refugees.
Greater efforts should be made to create a system which facilitates the process of applying for asylum and to provide assistance to asylum seekers, at no cost, in obtaining their legal documentation. This would mean they could access education, employment opportunities, and social services which would reduce some of their vulnerabilities. Allowing individual asylum claims, even if married, that don’t rely on the male partner being the file holder would remove gendered structures that perpetuate legal insecurities for women and their children.
More attention needs to be paid to the mental health and well-being of refugees who are survivors of sexual violence. Providing safe spaces for refugees to meet and connect and offering support through peer educator programmes in the community may be an important source of information, referral networks and social support.
Jane Freedman, Professeur de sociologie, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS); Marcia Victoria Mutambara, Research fellow, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Tamaryn Crankshaw, Programme Leader, Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division (HEARD), University of KwaZulu-Natal