Speaking Out in South Africa: Refugee Women Come Together to Sustain Hope
It is estimated that there are between 3 and 5 million refugees and forced migrants living in South Africa. The increasing number of refugees have become scapegoats for many of the country's social ills; high levels of unemployment, a shortage of housing, one of the world's worst crime rates and the highest levels of HIV infection.
Refugees desperately seeking respite from the horrors of their homelands are instead faced with sexual assault, police harassment, discrimination, and xenophobic attacks. Those that have no papers are often denied access to healthcare and safe shelter. And formal legal status is often difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
WWWA has seen a positive change in people's attitudes towards learning about HIV/AIDS. Refugees were first scared to be known as "infected woman." But now, 90% of calls WWWA receives are from people wanting to learn more about HIV/AIDS.
WWWA Gives Voice to Refugees
"Before I was invisible. Now I have been able to build up my inner strength," says Fatima during a support group meeting at Whole World Women's Association's (WWWA) office in Cape Town. The seven participants listening to her today come from the Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group calls itself Giemoh, which means "one voice."
Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Fatima fled to South Africa after her brother was killed and his body was left on the family's doorstep. Her husband came to South Africa first. Then she followed with their four children, an arduous 2,000 journey. Soon after she arrived, her husband had a stroke, fell ill and eventually passed away.
Fatima said she had no one to turn to and experienced discrimination at every turn. She was even told to put children up for adoption since she had no way to support to them.
At the time, Fatima said she often thought about taking her own life. But then, by chance, she met Mary Tal, WWWA's director, herself a refugee from Cameroon. Fatima says she was instantly relieved to tell her story to someone who would understand. Mary invited her to join the women's group.
What WWWA Does
WWWA provides legal assistance, organizes leadership and societal integration trainings, promotes HIV/AIDS awareness, voluntary counseling and testing, and actively fights to protect refugees' rights. Members themselves are trained to share the programs of WWWA in their home languages, reaching many vulnerable and underserved refugee communities.
They also run groups like Giemoh, so members can support each other and become empowered to speak out - and learn income-generating skills such as making and selling handicrafts. On a broader level, WWWA is part of a national movement to reduce xenophobia in South Africa.
"When you meet people in the group, you find other people who inspire you with their courage," says Epiphany, a member of Giemoh from Rwanda. "You are able to share your experiences and you find that together you can sustain hope."
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