It is not questionable that in times of disasters, natural or people made, women and girls are the ones that suffer the greatest consequences. Haiti is a perfect example of how a disaster recovery process undermined the security needs of women and girls in the haste to deal with “important issues”. There is a very famous excuse in humanitarian assistance missions that deliberately avoid a gender perspective – the excuse being that “there’s no time to think about gender in emergency situations”. When else then would it be of utmost critical importance to acquire a gender perspective than in such catastrophic situations when systems breakdown and leave women and girls vulnerable to various forms of violence?
For both Ethiopian women and men who have resided in Libya, the civil strife that has taken over the country for the past three weeks has also adopted a racial aspect to it. Numerous reports showcase that sub-Saharan Africans in Libya, male and female, are facing brutalities induced by Ghaddafi’s forces because of the color of their skin. That some of Gaddafi’s mercenaries have been identified as black Africans has also unleashed the rage of rebel forces upon what are now sub-Saharan refugees in Libya.
Ethiopian women have for years travelled to North Africa and the Middle East region in the hopes of making a better living for themselves and the families they leave behind. Often working as domestic servants, these women endure some of the most horrible experiences en route to their destinations and after having arrived as well. Beaten and starved by jealous Arab wives, raped by their employers, swindled by traffickers, one too many Ethiopian women have returned in body bags. Unable to endure the atrocities they face in employment and feeling shamed to return back to their homes empty-handed, some become prostitutes while countless others choose to dive off a balcony and let the cold cement below be their captor.
Now in Libya, the status of all the Ethiopians that had sought refuge there is unknown. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) states that some 160 Ethiopians are reported to have registered with the Sudanese embassy in Tripoli for Ethiopian government help in repatriating them back to their country. How will these and other people willing to return be repatriated? What security assistance will they be offered should they be required to congregate in one city to be airlifted? I know these are very penetrative and somewhat idealistic questions. But I ask these questions anyways to highlight the differences in the needs of men and women in such circumstances. Women and girls vulnerability to physical and sexual attacks escalates unless a concerted effort is made in guaranteeing their safety in passage.
Already female callers on the Voice of America (VOA) news channel echo that they have been imprisoned, tortured, robbed and raped by Libyans. Their double dangerous identity as black women in Libya puts them in a much more vulnerable position. In a heartbreaking declaration, one of the women stated “I would rather die in Benghazi than be raped en route to Misurata”. Another cries and tells of losing her 7-month pregnancy when a Libyan police man kicked her on the belly. For some of these women who have nothing to return to in terms of opportunities for sustenance, they share that the shame of returning to their expectant families empty-handed is too much to bear. Some families have gone into debt to send of these girls and women into domestic servitude in the hopes that they return with fortunes. What have we for them when they return?
Two weeks ago I’m walking up the stairs at the Ethiopian Immigration and Nationality Affairs Department. There are a disproportionate amount of women lined up. I know that most of them are going to the Middle East to enter domestic servitude. I start to wonder how many of them know what they are getting themselves into. How many of them will survive it?
Love & Light