By Michelle Hough, Caritas communications officer, Saly, Senegal
Mosquitoes became my obsession in the run-up to the Caritas Female Face of Migration conference in Saly, Senegal. Should I take the strong anti-malaria drug Malarone or should I just be careful and hope for the best? What a quandary – and I was only going to Africa for a week!
On the plane from Casablanca to Senegal I read the articles prepared by the experts coming to the conference. Every year millions of women set off on journeys to other continents. But their journeys and my work trip to Senegal – for which my main worry was malaria – are a world apart.
Take the story of Silvia, a Honduran woman who left her family to find work in the United States. She was kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico. Her kidnappers drilled into her hand, they beat her and they raped her. She was released after three months and returned to Honduras physically and psychologically traumatised. The risk she took for more financial security and a better life not only didn’t pay off, but it had left her life in tatters.
Or what about Khadija, who left Eritrea when she was pregnant and after her husband died in a famine, to go and live in Italy. She travelled by foot and by truck through Sudan, Egypt and Libya. She survived an attack in which other people died. She took a boat towards Sicily which lost its way and on which the food and water ran out. She was detained in a holding centre in Libya and then taken to Sicily to give birth. Now she doesn’t know how her life will unfold.
Women who migrate take serious risks during their journey and when they arrive in another country. Many of them hope to find a job but even this doesn’t offer the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They may find themselves trafficked or exploited in their new countries. Between 17-25 million migrant women are estimated to be domestic workers. Those who find domestic work in other countries can find themselves abused and without legal protection. They can also be isolated and lonely and the children they’ve left in their homeland may face serious psychological difficulties because of their fractured families.
For many of us, one of the nice parts of travelling is going back home where everything is familiar and where we can get back to reality. It’s something we take for granted. For 43.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced by persecution and conflict, they don’t know when they will see their home again or whether it will still be there if they do return.
Around half of these people are women. In such a vulnerable situation where they live in camps or precarious situations women may not be able to feed and clothe their children. As a result they will be vulnerable to manipulation and physical and sexual abuse to get the things they need. Something I found really surprising in my in-flight reading was that 5.5 million people are in protracted refugee situations. The average length of exile has increased from nine years in the 1990s, to 20 years today. How can these refugees ever feel safe in such a situation or ever plan a life for themselves or their children?
The Caritas conference is looking at all of these issues and more. Experts have come from all over the world, from Caritas member organisations and also from international organisations such as the International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the International Catholic Child Bureau. Their collective knowledge and experience will contribute to proposals to make migration for women safer and to ensure that their needs are taken into account.
Reading the stories of women migrants and refugees while on the plane to Senegal, two things stayed with me: how very brave these women are to risk their lives and health and the happiness of their families; but also how very desperate they must be to take such a risk.