By Bruktawit E. Kassa
*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli.
Refugee women are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV) and subsequent ill-health, which is profoundly happening across Europe and the Mediterranean countries (Keygnaert et al., 2015). These women go through physical, psychological and sexual abuses on the dangerous journey to Europe, during their stay in refugee camps, through the asylum process and even after gaining refugee status. According to one study which explored the nature of GBV that refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands experienced since arriving in the EU, a high incidence of combined forms of physical, psychological and sexual abuses – including frequent gang and multiple rapes – was reported (Keygnaert, Vettenburg, & Temmerman, 2012).
In many areas of Europe, the refugee camps that were supposed to be a temporary shield for those refugee women who fled unimaginable horrors have strikingly become a source of sexual violence. The UNHCR reported that Greek refugee centers have become a common place for sexual abuse, coercion, and harassment. For instance, in the year 2017, UNHCR received reports from 622 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence on the Greek Aegean islands, out of which at least 28% experienced GBV after arriving in Greece. This reported figure, however, hardly reflects the actual extent of GBV refugee women endure as most victims tend to not disclose violence due to the uncertainty of their conditions, the fear of revenge, feeling of dishonor or other reasons. Consequently, their painful experiences and stories of sexual violence and assault, including rape, quite often go unspoken, unaddressed and untreated, even during the groundbreaking anti-sexual violence movements of #MeToo and #Time’s up.
The revolutionary social media campaigns against sexual harassment and assault – #MeToo and Time’s up – have put the long-fought battle against gender violence to the spotlight around the world. The #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon on October 16, 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that a friend had suggested that women who have faced sexual assault and harassment post “Me too” as a status to sensitize people about the magnitude of the problem. These two words were immediately picked up by millions of women who shared their stories of sexual violence on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook alone, there were more than 12 million posts, comments, and reactions in less than a single day, by 4.7 million users around the world. Then, the New Year signaled the launch of Time’s up campaign by three hundred Hollywood female actors, agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives to fight against sexual harassment at the workplace. The initiative includes a 13 million dollar legal defense fund to help women in less privileged professions protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the consequences that may arise from reporting it. TIME magazine named those who took the frontline in the campaign the Silence Breakers as the 2017 Person of the Year.
Transcending the Hollywood terrain, the hashtag activism has upended the public conversation about sexual harassment and assault women deal with in both their professional and personal lives across the world. The campaigns indeed caught the attention of the EU when Terry Reintke, a Green Party MEP from Germany told her fellow MEPs: “Me too, I have been sexually harassed, just like millions of other women in the European Union, and I think it’s about time that we say that we should not be ashamed, but that the perpetrators should be ashamed”.
Most importantly, beyond serving as a platform for women to voice their experiences and concerns, the #MeToo and Time’s up campaign were powerful enough to knock over previously untouchable media giants, companies, politicians and stars.
Yet, #MeToo and #Time’s up seem to offer too little space to shine light on refugees’ plight of rape and sexual harassment. So far, the mainstream activism has tended to focus primarily on high profile figures and ignored to acknowledge the distinctively harsh experiences of sexual violence faced by refugee women. This may be because a refugee woman’s story of sexual abuse is considered “less worthy of a headline than those actresses who came forward with their own stories of abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others”.
Above all, missing out on the educational and economic privileges to access to and use of digital technologies (Alhayek, 2014), refugee women could find it hard to say #MeToo or #Time’s up. Notably, a digital divide resulting from inequalities in physical access to and use of digital technology, the skills necessary to use the different technologies effectively and the ability to pay for the services (Alam & Imran, 2015) can get refugee women left out of the hashtag activism. Besides, for those who have access to digital technologies, mastery of English language – the predominately used medium of communication in these platforms – can be a major barrier to learn about other women’s stories as well as to share their own.
Consequently, at a time when social media activism has assumed an influential role in changing public opinion, mobilizing activists, building solidarity, and shaping public policy, exclusion of women refugees and their issues from such platform would mean that their abuses remain unheard, undealt, and unchallenged. Such absence also deprives them of their human right; and the opportunity for empowerment. As explained in UNESCO’s Alexandria proclamation 2005, ‘digital literacy’ is ‘a basic human right in the digital world’; ‘empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals’. Coupled with the fact that the stories and voices of refugee women are marginalized in the mainstream media as well, the magnitude of gender violence these women bear stays hidden to the public and the concerned bodies who could provide timely medical and social support to victims and pressure for policy interventions.
Alam, K., & Imran, S. (2015). The digital divide and social inclusion among refugee migrants. Information Technology & People, 28(2), 344–365. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-04-2014-0083
Alhayek, K. (2014). Double marginalization: The invisibility of Syrian refugee women’s perspectives in mainstream online activism and global media. Feminist Media Studies, 14(4), 696–700. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2014.935205
Keygnaert, I., Dias, S. F., Degomme, O., Devillé, W., Kennedy, P., Kováts, A., … Temmerman, M. (2015). Sexual and gender-based violence in the European asylum and reception sector: A perpetuum mobile? European Journal of Public Health, 25(1), 90–96. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cku066
Keygnaert, I., Vettenburg, N., & Temmerman, M. (2012). Hidden violence is silent rape : sexual and gender- based violence in refugees , asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands, 1058(October 2016), 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2012.671961