-Written by Marchu Girma, Women for Refugee Women
When sexual exploitation of Hollywood stars became a huge story in the media inspiring thousands of women to take courage and say #MeToo on social media, it also inspired refugee women in our network to start talking about their experiences of sexual abuse, harassment, trafficking and being preyed upon and they related to common experience of #MeToo.
Most of all, many of the women were stunned to discover their experiences of not being believed by authorities were shared amongst all women, including Hollywood stars. Many refugee women, who disclose to the Home Office their experiences of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual harassment in their home countries, are not believed. Their stories are dismissed and they are asked to provide proof of abuse, where the threshold for belief is overwhelmingly high. Many women have asked me over the years, ‘How can we provide proof of being raped by soldiers or abused by family members?’
Their proof is their bodies and their stories.
The Home Office’s refusal to believe refugee women when they tell their stories has detrimental effects on women’s mental and physical wellbeing. It also leaves women destitute with no support, relying on handouts from friends and charities, or in some cases, homeless out on the cold streets. Such situations expose women to further exploitation, sexual harassment and rape.
Whilst sharing stories in the class, Precious*, a refugee woman from DRC, told the group:
‘I was staying in a spare room of a lovely couple who had been married for over 30 years. Every night the husband came to knock on my door. I was so scared; I jammed the table against the door. After a few days of this happening I left the house, even though I had nowhere to go. ’
The #MeToo campaign inspired Precious to report the incident to the charity but Precious would never report it to the police. Refugee women who are vulnerable like Precious, who find themselves victims of crime, harassment, sexual violence are inhibited from going to the police because they fear their details will be passed on to the home office, who would then detain and deport them. This fear of a worst fate in the countries they fled from, is stopping women from reporting and getting the appropriate help they need.
Migrant and refugee women are the most disempowered and disenfranchised in our society. That’s why on International Women’s day we are organising the #AllWomenCount lobby, led by refugee and migrant women and asking parliamentarians to sign a pledge to listen to refugee and migrant women and support their rights to safety, dignity and liberty.
Precious felt empowered for taking action and for speaking her truth, as many women across the world are with the #TimesUp and #MeToo movement. Many refugee women are ready to share their stories and speak their truth. We now need to give them platforms to speak out and to say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we believe you.’