Immigrant women need protection

The recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, which have displaced a large number of foreign nationals who  include migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers in that country, have shaken the international community to the core.


The attacks have left hundreds of foreigners nursing injuries of varying degrees while the unfortunate one like the Mozambique national Emmanuel Sithole lost their lives. Others have their livelihoods destroyed when shops and houses were looted and burnt to the ground.

Men, women and children who sought shelter in large tents with few facilities have to contend with the fast approaching winter while thousands more have reportedly heeded calls from their countries to return home, as many South African citizens bow their heads in shame.

 The chairperson of SADC and the African Union, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, has described the attacks as ‘shocking and disgusting’ while calling for measures to be put in place to ensure that such xenophobic incidences never happen again.

He was speaking at Zimbabwe’s 35th Independence Anniversary on April 18. It is against this background that this week’s column serves to emphasise the particular vulnerabilities which female immigrants in Southern Africa find themselves facing.

According to Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa, South Africa has the highest number of immigrants in the SADC region.

In 2012, 5.7 percent of the South African population was foreign born, comprising legal and illegal immigrants.

Based on CAI research, undocumented immigrants generally move from neighbouring countries for historical, political or social reasons.

On the other hand, legal migrants, who are allowed to live permanently in South Africa, often move for business and economic purposes.

Although there are no official statistics yet, as a matter of fact female migrants constitute an increasingly large proportion of migrants and a gender perspective on the xenophobic attacks in South Africa is justified.

Many of these women are very brave, and have withstood difficulties and pressures in their home countries, as well as the intimidating experience of moving to another country, as they attempt to find ways to make a living for themselves and their families.

In their journeys as migrants, however, these women also face corrupt and unscrupulous people who exploit them at the borders. They are already vulnerable, as women, as foreign nationals, and often as unskilled labourers.

For instance, they are perceived to be stealing jobs from South Africans as well as exhausting public resources such as health and educational facilities.

This, in combination with the fact that women are soft targets, renders them extremely vulnerable to attacks and even sexual harassment.

Some of the victims of such xenophobic attacks have no access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) or medical doctors during the xenophobic attacks.

Additionally, migrant women do not benefit from South African employment and resources especially if they are illegal immigrants or undocumented migrants.

They generally find odd jobs in the informal economy and do not, therefore have automatic access to health services.

Many of them who owned small businesses have seen their shops being looted and torched and now may become an additional burden on the struggling South African economy, instead of contributing to it, as they had previously been doing.

In order for President Mugabe’s wish to prevent xenophobia, it requires political groups, social partners, religious communities, NGOs, and the media need to do their part in order to root out the evil in our societies.

Forty two years ago in Washington DC, civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King, while fighting for equality and respect for African Americans, presented to the world his dream of an equal, just and tolerant society.

It is still a dream that we all share. It is also our dream that through a common will and action we can all stop xenophobia.

Until then…

April 2015
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