African women flee­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence risk be­ing as­saulted on way to Europe

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - ROSSALYN WAR­REN for­eign@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/worldviews

off the coast of libya — The mid­wife leafed through a pile of fold­ers on the ta­ble. Over the past 24 hours, she had been rush­ing in and out of the makeshift medic’s room aboard a boat res­cu­ing peo­ple from the Mediter­ranean Sea. Now, as the ves­sel headed back to the Ital­ian coast­line with more than 1,000 mi­grants slumped on the deck, she had a chance to re­view her cases.

“Thirty-four-year-old woman, from Cameroon. Preg­nant, raped in Libya,” said An­gelina Perri, a 59-year-old from Italy, read­ing her hand­writ­ten notes. She works for Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, which is con­duct­ing res­cue mis­sions at sea be­tween Libya and Italy. “Nine­teen-yearold from Guinea, raped in Libya. Two Nige­rian women, one 25 years old, one 24 years old, both raped.”

The Mediter­ranean waters be­tween Libya and Italy are the cur­rent front line for Europe’s mi­grant cri­sis. At least 2,196 peo­ple have died at sea try­ing to reach Europe this year, more than dou­ble the rate of 2016. But the risk of death has not de­terred peo­ple start­ing the jour­ney: This year, more than 80,000 peo­ple have reached Italy on wooden and rub­ber boats, the ma­jor­ity trav­el­ing from coun­tries in West Africa.

The route to Libya is also per­ilous, and it is es­pe­cially treach­er­ous for women. On ev­ery res­cue mis­sion, Perri meets women who say they have en­dured sex­ual as­sault and rape. She spoke of cases in which women had con­tracted HIV from sex­ual vi­o­lence while cross­ing bor­ders; she lis­tened to oth­ers as they told her how guns and other ob­jects had been used to pen­e­trate them.

Yet de­spite the known per­ils on the jour­ney to Europe, women are will­ing to risk their lives to es­cape equally dire sex­ual vi­o­lence at home.

In 2016, the United Na­tions iden­ti­fied gen­der-spe­cific vi­o­lence — such as early and forced mar­riage and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence — as rea­sons women are leav­ing their coun­tries of ori­gin. The prob­lem has per­sisted for some time in the re­gion. In 2010, a Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders study on a sam­ple of sub-Sa­ha­ran women who had fled to North Africa found that 70 per­cent had left their coun­tries be­cause of vi­o­lence or abuse. Al­most a third of the women said they had been raped in their coun­try of ori­gin.

The per­pe­tra­tors of sex­ual vi­o­lence on the route to Libya can be any­one: se­cu­rity and po­lice forces, smug­glers out to ex­ploit and traf­fic women, some­times even the men on res­cue boats with them. In Fe­bru­ary, a UNICEF re­port said the lev­els of sex­ual vi­o­lence, ex­ploita­tion, abuse and de­ten­tion along the Cen­tral Mediter­ranean mi­gra­tion route make it “among the world’s dead­li­est and most dan­ger­ous mi­grant routes for chil­dren and women.”

One refugee char­ity de­scribed con­di­tions on the route as “hell on Earth,” with sex­ual abuse oc­cur­ring at “ev­ery stage of the jour­ney” and af­fect­ing “al­most all” fe­male mi­grants and refugees. The re­port said some women choose to get con­tra­cep­tive in­jec­tions while trav­el­ing to pre­vent preg­nan­cies, know­ing that the like­li­hood of rape dur­ing the jour­ney is high.

Aboard the res­cue boat, Perri at­tended to 17 preg­nant women, as well as women trav­el­ing alone and moth­ers car­ing for sev­eral chil­dren. Some said they had aban­doned abu­sive part­ners at home; oth­ers were forced to en­gage in trans­ac­tional sex to fund their travel. Sev­eral women asked Perri whether they could take a preg­nancy test. “We then ask if be­ing preg­nant is a good thing or a bad thing,” she said. “If they say it’s a bad thing, we know to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.”

Even when those in tran­sit reach Libya, the con­di­tions re­main dire. Men, women and chil­dren are held in­def­i­nitely in de­ten­tion cen­ters, where many are tor­tured, raped and starved. Some are sold into the mod­ern­day slave trade: The In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion, a United Na­tions body, es­ti­mated that 80 per­cent of the 11,009 Nige­rian women who ar­rived in Si­cily from Libya in 2016 were traf­ficked.

Women who work as maids in homes in Libya are some­times kid­napped in the mid­dle of the day to be smug­gled into Europe. “Women are sit­ting there in homes eat­ing their lunch, and the next minute, they’re grabbed, dragged and thrown on a boat,” said Sarah Adeyinka, a Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders cul­tural me­di­a­tor, whose own cousin from Nigeria had been traf­ficked.

Europe’s re­sponse to the is­sues faced by fe­male refugees and mi­grants has been slow. In April, mem­bers of the Coun­cil of Europe rec­og­nized that “the gen­der di­men­sion of the refugee cri­sis has been largely over­looked,” say­ing that the pro­tec­tion of women “should be a pri­or­ity, ir­re­spec­tive of their sta­tus.”

Last month, the coun­cil rat­i­fied leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent and com­bat vi­o­lence against women, high­light­ing a need for gen­der-sen­si­tive asy­lum pro­ce­dures and refugee-sta­tus de­ter­mi­na­tion, as well as the pres­ence of fe­male so­cial work­ers, in­ter­preters, po­lice of­fi­cers and guards in tran­sit fa­cil­i­ties.

Still, some char­i­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions warn that sex­ual vi­o­lence on mi­gra­tion routes is be­ing gravely un­der­es­ti­mated. They say that in­suf­fi­cient train­ing of per­son­nel and a lack of ef­fec­tive pro­ce­dures to iden­tify cases of sex­ual vi­o­lence make mi­grant women re­luc­tant to seek med­i­cal at­ten­tion or re­port the crimes. As a re­sult, ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Union Agency for Fun­da­men­tal Rights, Europe is “not able to pre­vent or re­spond to sur­vivors of sex­ual and gen­der-based vi­o­lence in any mean­ing­ful way.”

As the boat ar­rived in Italy, Perri handed out med­i­cal cer­tifi­cates to those who had ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual vi­o­lence, tor­ture and traf­fick­ing, de­tail­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences and the med­i­cal ad­vice they had re­ceived. They hope the cer­tifi­cates can help their asy­lum cases, but there is no guar­an­tee.

“Some women refuse to take a cer­tifi­cate,” Perri said. “They’re afraid and don’t want to speak about it.”

“Thirty-four-yearold woman, from Cameroon. Preg­nant, raped in Libya. Nine­teenyear-old from Guinea, raped in Libya. Two Nige­rian women . . . both raped.” An­gelina Perri of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, read­ing her pa­tient notes

CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES

Mi­grants wait in an aid ves­sel’s hold­ing area in June af­ter be­ing res­cued at sea off the coast of Italy. More than 80,000 peo­ple have reached Italy this year on ram­shackle boats, the ma­jor­ity com­ing from coun­tries in West Africa via a route rife with gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

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