As of the end of 2015, there are currently 45,000 asylum seekers, 15% of which are women. Women asylum seekers suffer not only exclusion and are discriminated against based on their ethnicity or lack of legal status in Israel - moreover, they are being discriminated against based on their gender.
Back in their home country, these women have already been extremely vulnerable. We often hear how, in countries were war wages, or where there are racial or political prosecutions, rape becomes the weapon of choice; In their migratory routes as well, women are more exposed than men to sexual abuse and rape by their smugglers; lastly, even once they have arrived at the hosting country, they are still subjected to their share of sufferings and threats.
There is no doubt that the experience of migration and displacement is a difficult one for everyone; this is even more so when it comes to women who are asylum seekers. Being an asylum seekers usually entails a breakdown of the woman's household and separation from her family, and often times it forces women to become single mothers, and to provide for their family all by themselves. In other cases, women are forced to live with a man only because of social or financial constraints and pressures. In their hosting countries, they are exposed to exploitations, sexual offenses and other sorts of harassments and abuse. It is a known fact that women everywhere find it hard to come forth and file complaints against their harassers, but when it comes to women who are asylum seekers, breaking the silence becomes even a greater challenge.
The Eritrean women center was established four years ago, in order to address some of these problems and challenges that women asylum seekers face in Israel. An independent initiative of women refugees from Eritrea, this center aims at providing a safe place for these women, where they can share their stories and their hardship, and get support, information, and council.
I have met Asmait Mahazion who is the director of the Eritrean women center, to discuss the center as well as the various challenges that these women face daily in Israel.
Please tell me a little about the center's activities:
The Eritrean women center aims to be a home for women asylum seekers. Running away from Eritrea and immigrating to Israel have torn us apart: it has torn our traditional establishments, it has torn our families, our communities. Slowly we gathered that, unless we support each other, unless we have a safe haven where we can be together and feel comfortable, it would be extremely difficult for us to survive the trauma we have been to, and the hardship we go through in our lives here in Israel.
Why is the center a women-only center?
It is a women center because women in these situations have special needs, different from those of men, and they encounter an additional set of problems, which the center tries to address.
Men, for instance, have other places to go to – bars, restaurants – where they can sit together and talk. For women, there are no such places, and they need a place of their own. They have special issues that pertain to their gender, such as how we raise a family in the current situation, how we deal with all we have been through – these issues are specific for women and we need this place – our special place – where we feel safe enough to discuss these. Because of our culture, because of what we women are used to in Eritrea, we women will feel comfortable to discuss such issues only in a women-only environment.
What sorts of activities are taking place in the center?
The center offers both individual assistance and support-groups on various issues. We convene to discuss all sorts of problems and try together to come up with solutions. We also hold trainings for women on various topics - family planning, women's rights, raising children, etc.
Furthermore, we hold meetings dedicated to specific issues, for instance this week, to mark the AIDS awareness week, we will hold a meeting on the issues of HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, in the light of the recent death of babies in the "babysitters" we held a special meeting to discuss these events and think of ways to cope with the tragedies.
Please tell me a bit more about the special problems that women who are asylum seekers encounter in Israel:
Where do I start? There are so many problems…
I'll start with the fact that we're immigrants – we left our homes, our families, our communities, our culture and our language. This, alone, is difficult enough.
But in addition, some of us have been severely traumatized on their way to Israel - many women were kidnapped and held hostage at the Sinai desert, where they were tortured and raped. Even those women who were "lucky" enough not to be held captive for many months, were still oftentimes raped and abused by the smugglers.
And then we arrived here, in Israel, and here we're left with no legal status and so with no access to any services or basic rights. This is true also for men asylum seekers, of course, but for women this is especially difficult. Many times we too have to leave our home and work long hours, this is something we're not used to doing back in Eritrea. And when we come home after a day's work, we have to take care of our families, so this work is very hard. Sometimes, women are forced to be with men they do not really like, against their own will, only because of pressure from their family or the community, or because they are simply unable to provide for themselves. This leads men to feel they have a lot of power and control over the women in our community, and may lead to cases of domestic violence. But because of the language barrier, and because of their overall fear from the Israeli authorities, cases of domestic violence are hardly ever reported. These women will not go to the police, but they also don't have a social worker they can turn to. Because they're women, because they don't speak the language, because they have no legal status, often times they are also harassed in their work-place, and there too, there is nothing to do because until she has found a decent job, a woman will hesitate to file a complaint in the event someone at work has laid a hand on her, or even more than that.
What sorts of solutions do these women require? What would improve their situation in Israel?
We can begin with the basics – what all asylum seekers need – to receive recognition as refugees, and consequently, to receive the rights that such status entails. If we achieve that, then the special needs of women will be more easily met. If women could have access to welfare services in Israel, it will allow them to cope with domestic violence and would ease the task of raising their children, for with all the current burdens and the stress it is very difficult to attend to their children and provide them with the needed support, material and emotional.
If women have access to public health services, this would be very important as well, since for instance, today women asylum seekers cannot have complete prenatal care – they can get but some of the tests, but not all, and this poses threats both for the mother-to-be, and for the baby. Needless to say, health services are needed not just during pregnancy.
Additionally, once the state of the entire community stabilizes, once they receive refugee status, then naturally, the condition of women in the community will improve as well. Currently, everyone in the community is under so much pressure – financial burdens, the fear from detention, the question whether to remain in Israel or leave back to Africa – these and other issues take their toll on the entire community, and often it is the women who have to cope with everything, which causes a lot of suffering.
What do you think could solve the violence against these women?
Here I believe the key is to give women more access to the police and to welfare services so that they become less afraid to come forward and complain, and that they trust the authorities to help them. Along with this, we need to invest more work with the men and to lend more support to couples in crisis. Lastly, we need to empower women and to support also those women who council other women.
Elisheva Milikovsky, Physicians for Human Rights