MORE than 50 people have died, hundreds have been injured and thousands displaced in the wave of xenophobic violence that swept across South Africa in recent weeks.
While media reports described the brutality of the attacks on foreign nationals – which included beatings, stabbings, torching and property seizures – women caught up in the crisis have been especially vulnerable.
While the attackers have not chosen victims according to gender or age, foreign women in the townships have been subject to violation of their bodies, through beatings and rape, and of their homes (burning and looting).
Women have also been singled out as a cause of conflict as South African men accused foreign nationals of "stealing our women".
Reports of rape surfaced in the midst of the violence and in any conflict the sexual violation of women has the potential to erode the fabric of a community, erasing identity in a way that few weapons can – through dominance of survivors and the men socially connected to them.
With sexual violence pervasive, it is difficult to distinguish between rape as an opportunistic crime and incidents motivated by xenophobia. And the number of attacks may have been under-reported due to foreigners being fearful of police.
Victims would have had to overcome their mistrust of law enforcement officers – many suspect police complicity in corruption, intimidation and abuse of foreigners – as well as overcome the usual credibility hurdles encountered in rape cases.
South African women married to or dating foreigners might also have found themselves under attack by men who felt a need to control or punish others.
Physical scars may have been just one visible impact of the xenophobic attacks as the traditional carers of their families have been unsettled, uprooting children.
Migrants became handy scapegoats for social ills such as unemployment, crime and limited access to services.
Foreign women were not only perceived as having taken jobs but were also blamed for abuse of public services such as hospitals and schools.
However, many migrant and refugee women have limited scope for employment and would accept any work in the informal economy or unregulated sectors.
As a result, their access to state services such as health, education and justice is also limited, especially if they lack papers.
Many of the foreign women fled conflict, sexual and domestic violence, and political and/or economic repression. The insecurity and violence they now face in South Africa compounds their trauma.
In her book Engendering Wartime Conflict: Women and War Trauma, Ingrid Palmary points out that women often do not see their violation as part of political conflict but as personal or domestic – which would suggest leaders and service providers leave women out of reconciliation and justice mechanisms.
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 is 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 for the violence and transition project at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. This is an edited version of her article for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.
In Sunday Tribune