Malta: Somali women stalked by rape as they migrate

When three members of a militia raped a woman in a Somali town, she was accused of adultery and sentenced to stoning.

Luckily, she managed to escape and arrived safely in Malta, where she followed a programme run by the Jesuit Refugee Service to empower migrant women.

The experiences of this woman and her fellow migrants have been assembled in a booklet “No giving up: Stories of unfinished journeys” that was launched today. It is available in hard copy at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Birkirkara and online.

“One afternoon three militia men raped me. There was a bad clash between Al-Shabaab and another group that day. The news that I had been raped spread and I was ashamed,” the woman’s entry reads. She returned to her farm two months later. One day a young man whom she knew went to her farm just as she was finishing the day’s work.

“People from Al-Shabaab said ‘You have been raped and now you have committed adultery.’ They declared I would be stoned as a punishment.”

This was not the first such incident where she lived, and her neighbours helped her leave the country immediately.

This excerpt is one of the contributions published following group sessions with Somali women held by JRS Malta, which over the past couple of years has increased its focus on women in detention and within the community.

Alexia Rossi of JRS said that the NGO usually advocated on behalf of people, but this time it wanted to encourage women to speak up for themselves.

The booklet was launched this morning in collaboration with the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

“These women have to first identify their rights, because sometimes migrants come from places where the violation of rights is normal.”

Migrant women are in a more vulnerable position because of certain norms in their country, including gender-based violence.

And once they’re on the road, migrating, men outnumber them, making them more vulnerable.

In fact, many of the women who manage to arrive here and speak to JRS in detention have been raped more than once throughout their journey. Once in Malta, detention officers, doctors and interpreters are predominantly male and the women find it very difficult to express themselves.

Following the programme of group sessions, which took place over 10 weeks, a number of these women became willing to speak about their horrific experiences in Somalia and the challenges they faced during the journey for the first time, without fearing for any consequences.

For Kristina Zammit, also of JRS, the fact that these women, who are rejected asylum seekers, have not given up is a success in itself, as many of them could have easily despaired.

The experiences in the booklet in fact include a silver lining: “It is true. We have been rejected, we have no documents and we live in Ħal Far. But most of the time, we make ourselves happy, because if we think about how we have nothing all the time, we will go mad.”

The excerpt continues that the women’s hopes keep them “happy and well”.

“We hope because we have the support of people who help and encourage us, who ask us about our stories, about what we need and what we plan. We feel empowered and encouraged.” The JRS project, the Somali woman says, helps the migrants morally, mentally and psychologically – and they would have otherwise just kept their mouths shut.

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said that the booklet was testament of the resilience of these women. It booklet provided a safe space for them to express themselves and share the challenges of the asylum procedure.

The project, which started in June 2013, gave a rare insight into their harrowing stories through a first hand account of their experiences. The women involved spent between a year and a year and a half in detention.

President Coleiro Preca said research showed that detention had a drastic impact on the health and social life of detainees.

And there was no evidence to show that the threat of detention deterred migration so it was time to reflect on alternatives.

The second part of the project, which has already been embarked upon, is focusing on migrants of different nationalities living in Maltese communities.