Being both foreign and female increased the vulnerability of women during the xenophobic violence in South Africa.
Xenophobia targets women and children because they are central to making settlement happen. They denote a more permanent move, the laying down of roots.
In the wave of xenophobic violence that swept across South Africa in the past weeks, more than 50 people have died, hundreds are injured, and thousands displaced. While media reports described the brutality of the attacks on foreign nationals — which have included people being beaten, stabbed, torched and dispossessed of their belongings and homes — there has been little consideration of the double jeopardy of being both foreign and female that renders women especially vulnerable in this deepening crisis.
While the perpetrators of the xenophobic violence in South Africa have not differentiated based on gender or age in their attacks on foreigners, the gender perspective to xenophobia is getting lost in the midst of the horror.
Foreign women in the townships have been disproportionately affected by the recent xenophobia, not only because the violence has played out on their bodies (through beatings and rape), but also because the violence has been directed towards their homes (through burning and looting).
Source of violence
At the same time, within South Africa's undisputedly patriarchal society, women have also been thrust into the conflict as a real and potential source of violence between South African and foreign men. Again and again, we hear South African men accusing foreign nationals of "stealing our women".
There have been reports of rape in the midst of the general perpetration of xenophobic violence. Systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war in "ethnic cleansing". Although South Africa is not at war, its current situation could be considered a "conflict situation" and in a conflict situation, the sexual violation of women can erode the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can.
Rape in conflict situations serves to dominate and tame not only the women survivors who are its immediate victims, but also all the men socially connected to them by delivering the message that they are not strong enough to protect their women. From this point of view, rape in war or conflict is a means of committing genocide, by destroying a particular group or nation's identity.
In a country where sexual violence is pervasive in everyday life, it is difficult to distinguish rapes motivated by xenophobic attitudes from those perpetrated because the general atmosphere of violence and lawlessness has allowed for it. Rape can be a political tool of xenophobia; or an act of opportunistic criminal violence against a woman because of her gender, under the guise of xenophobia.
Unfortunately, though reported numbers of rape were not alarmingly high in the recent attacks, it is likely that many xenophobia-related rapes are unreported because foreign women are fearful of the police.
Firstly, as foreigners in an environment where the police have a reputation for complicity in corruption, intimidation and abuse of foreigners, they are mistrustful of law enforcement. Secondly, as women in a society where the victims of sexual violence are often treated with scepticism and suffer secondary victimisation, there is a general reluctance to disclose. South African women marrying or dating foreigners may also be vulnerable to attack and sexual violence, based on xenophobia. Sexual violence is well documented in South Africa as a means to control and punish women. Men may rape South African women as a means of controlling them or curbing their agency in choosing foreign men, and as a punishment for their waywardness.
The affect in women is not just physical assault. Many foreign women have been responsible for protecting their young children from the violence, which has entailed displacement to temporary shelters or places of safety where there is insufficient access to food, blankets and sanitation.
"Woman' (and the associated categories of wife, mother and daughter) is a social position that comes with a range of expectations and investments. Women are the traditional carers of their families, with the responsibility to feed, clothe and provide shelter for their families.
As such, xenophobia targets women and children because they are central to making settlement happen while a host population may see migrant men as transitory, women and children denote a more permanent move and the laying down of roots.
Targets as scapegoats
Migrants are increasingly targeted as the scapegoats for all manner of domestic problems facing societies today, particularly unemployment, crime, and limited access to services. People perceive immigrant women — who following gender roles tend to be responsible for their families' well being — as taking jobs and "using and abusing" already stretched public services, such as hospitals and schools.
In reality, many migrant and refugee women in South Africa have limited employment opportunities and are often at the bottom of the labour market. Many of these women hold jobs in the informal economy or unregulated sectors. As such, their access to state services such as health, education and justice is also limited, especially if they are undocumented migrants or illegal immigrants. Many foreign women are in South Africa after having fled conflict-zones, sexual and domestic violence, and political and/or economic repression in their home countries. The insecurity and violence they now face in South Africa compounds their trauma.
Interestingly, in her book Engendering Wartime Conflict: Women and War Trauma, Ingrid Palmary points out that women, and others, often do not see violations against women as part of political conflict, but instead tend to view them as personal or domestic violations. This means the very real possibility that leaders and service providers leave women out of reconciliation and justice mechanisms.
Although often overlooked amidst the shocking images and stories emanating from the xenophobic attacks of the last two weeks, that there is a gendered face of xenophobia is unmistakable. Foreign women face the double jeopardy of belonging to and being at the intersection of two groups so vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence. This something the country must consider as it moves towards healing and responding to the needs of the injured and displaced.
Romi Fuller is Project Manager of the Violence and Transition Project at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Hindu.