This week, most of the clients I have worked with for the legal team were women, which (for me at least) has not been the typical experience. Most of my former clients have been men, and most played a direct part in some political struggle, whether as a human rights activist, an opposition-party supporter, or someone who an armed group or security force sought to forcibly recruit.
Female clients who come to PASSOP tell a different type of story, one where their husband, brother, son, or parents have been killed, and then they become the target for forced marriage, rape or sexual slavery, female genital mutilation, disappearance, and/or murder. In other words, threats against women’s lives and safety typically arise because of association (for PASSOP’s clients): If a woman’s brother, husband, son, or father supported an opposition-party or resisted forcible recruitment, the woman herself may become a target to threaten, intimidate, and/or force the hand of the male target. Or, another woman or girl in her family has become a target.
Some women who have fled these horrors come to South Africa with distinct cultural backgrounds which may prevent them from remarrying. This is perhaps the most difficult situation I have discussed with a female client: She has come to South Africa after most if not all of her family has been killed, including her husband; she cannot remarry without abandoning and disrespecting her culture; and she has little to no experience in a world where women work to bring in income, and have developed skills (and languages) that are desirable for employers in a city setting (as opposed to an rural setting).
There are no easy answers or solutions, especially for an organization that works with refugees and asylum seekers primarily from the legal and documentation perspective. It is also challenging to work with clients who have important traditions that must be respected, where the organization works from a position that seeks to empower and respect women.
Some of the interns have revamped the program advocating against gender-based violence and discrimination against female refugees and asylum seekers, but these women unfortunately face struggle in the interim. Helping with employment and temporary accommodation (as with LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers) may be the most that we can do, on top of asking clients to return and give us updates on their case (assuming they have money and feel safe enough to travel and return to our office in city center).
One amazing, extraordinary story comes from a young woman who escaped devastating violence in the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo. She came to PASSOP seeking legal aid after an attorney in the United States spoke with her; she asked for a Letter of Witness to help substantiate her brother’s claims for asylum in the United States, as well as her own claims.
Her baby boy sat on her lap as she calmly recounted her story. The last time she had seen her brother was in December of 2000: Rebels, meaning those in opposition to Joseph Kabila and his political party, swept through towns lining Lake Kivu in eastern Congo during that time period. This woman lived in one of those villages, and, one day, sought her brother to help him flee forcible recruitment (or worse) when she heard that the rebels were approaching. He had gone with friends to play soccer, but she was unable to start her search before armed forces arrived. She fled the village, running across the countryside with her fellow villagers as the rebels and government forces exchanged gunfire. She survived by hiding in an underground granary at a nearby homestead. Six months after the attack, she fled to Lubumbashi because rebel forces had established themselves in the village. Rebel forces (and government forces in other villages she traveled through during her escape) threatened, beat, and raped villagers; they forced girls into sexual slavery to serve military soldiers and commanders; and they abducted teenage boys to forcibly recruit them to fight.
She has lived in South Africa from 2001 until today, under the impression that her brother had died during the shootout or in the jungle thereafter. She received a message in 2016 that her brother was alive and, upon photo and other confirmation, is looking to rejoin him and their father in the United States.
A truly incredible story. Listening made me feel overwhelmed; happy that she had escaped and that luck had given her an opportunity to reunite with her “long lost” family, but also devastated, in realizing that there were forty to fifty other female clients I was not speaking with because they had not managed to escape a village in eastern Congo in 2000, or because their family had not survived and reached out years afterward.
The director of the LGBTIQ advocacy program, Victor, invited me to a meeting between PASSOP and Enhanced Care Foundation, Cape Town (ECF), on Monday this week. ECF works to provide public health services to men who have sex with men (MSMs) and trans persons in the Cape-Metro area. We met with ECF to discuss how our two organizations can work together, and to share our perceptions and understandings of Cape Town’s LGBTIQ NPO (nonprofit organization) sector.
The ECF company is global, but the Cape Town branch is relatively new to the city’s health services scene. The directors were well-equipped, knowledgable, and dedicated, but they also illustrated a number of concerns for organizations providing health services in South Africa: The market is saturated with these types of services, and yet the apparent plethora of companies has not yet reached the areas of Cape Town that have the most need. Meaning, MSMs and trans persons living in more destitute or remote areas still do not have access to public health services; usually not even immediate treatment for physical injuries, let alone STI testing.
Then, building a South African company or organization requires months if not years of building trust with the target community; most South Africans will distrust a new name, and constantly press a company or organization for credibility or reasons why their brand, product, or service is better than another. Additionally, ECF must provide their services at no cost, which seems ideal; but their experience has proven otherwise. Clients did not arrive in large groups at ECF until the foundation started to charge clients for services. In other words, it seems that South Africans want to pay for products and/or services, or will better trust a product or service when they pay for it.
We determined that, as two organizations with somewhat distinct services and projects, we can at least refer clients to one another. We also discussed the need for an easily accessible, online platform for Cape Town’s LGBTIQ organizations and community groups. As of now, there is no unified platform for entities to promote themselves, their projects, and their events, in a way that educates the whole community about which entities exist (and where), which services they provide, and how each entity is connected or cooperative with others.
It was great to sit at a conference table with people of different backgrounds and nationalities, listen to their stories, learn about how they came to their work and career choice, and see vibrance, excitement, and dedication to LGBTIQ communities and issues.
I hope that gender-motivated violence and female refugee issues will receive, or are receiving, the same attention and dedication here in Cape Town. And I hope PASSOP can soon engage with those issues, after its program sees more development and revamping.