Some women are born refugees: Remember your Eritrean sisters

The international community marks World Refugee Day this week, which refugees and human rights organizations in Israel will officially celebrate on Friday. But while the world commemorates the 1951 Refugee Convention, impossible suffering continues to be the fate of countless women. Professor Minna Rozen reminds us of what we have to be thankful for.

By Minna Rozen

Better to be a man than a woman. If you were a man, then everything you do would meet with more approval, financial compensation and social reward. Your medical problems would enjoy more attention and funding. Your commentary would be considered sober and responsible, in contrast with that as a woman, which is considered hysterical, exaggerated and baseless.

Better to be a white woman than a black woman. As a white woman, you’d enjoy more opportunities for education, medical treatment, shared child-rearing with the man who impregnated you, employment to support you and your children, and a longer life expectancy.

If you are a black woman, then better to be black in the United States or Europe than in Asia or Africa. While you will still face discrimination due to the color of your skin, your chances are much better in the United States or Europe than those of your African sister, or one whose luck landed her somewhere in Asia. Also, it’s often better to be a black Christian than a black Muslim – though that depends on who your neighbors are.

Last Thursday, an Eritrean refugee murdered his wife and her baby, and then committed suicide. The man had fled to Israel more than one year ago, leaving behind a life of slavery in the army of the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki. Even though the State of Israel prevented him from exercising his right as a refugee to work for a living, he labored in oppressive conditions, without a permit, until he managed to collect the thousands of dollars necessary to bring his beloved wife to Israel. As has become common practice in the last two years, once she was in the hands of the Bedouin border smugglers, instead of letting her cross into Israel, they demanded thousands more dollars in exchange for her release. As the money was slow in coming, they held her in Sinai for many months, torturing her and raping her relentlessly, as they have done with hundreds more women in the last two years.

Only when the man managed to collect the requisite sum did the smugglers release the woman, who was in advanced stages of pregnancy. After the murder, it emerged that the man could not even look at the infant, a reminder of the damage to his honor as a man who failed to protect his wife. Despite the difficulties the woman undoubtedly endured, she could not come to terms with giving up the baby, even though he was the child of one of her torturers.

A few days later, human rights activists helped separate a couple in an identical situation, fearing for the life of the woman and the infant about to be born. She doesn’t want the child under any circumstances, but in this case as well, it is too late to abort. If the infant is lucky, an Israeli family will adopt him.

It all depends on the stars under which one is born.

If you are an Eritrean woman, it can be presumed that like 88 percent of your fellow countrywomen, you have been circumcised to prevent you from enjoying sexual intercourse. You might have been forcibly drafted into the army, where you meet the various whims – sexual and others – of your commanders. If fate smiled upon you and you were not drafted, you will be the property of your father, husband or brother. If fate did not smile upon you and you were taken captive by a hostile tribe, or if you escaped Eritrea and tried to cross the border into Israel, you will be out of luck, as you will be repeatedly raped by many men. If your family did not manage to collect thousands of dollars in time, the smugglers might agree to release you only when it’s too late to terminate your pregnancy. If you have a partner, he might force you to murder your baby if you didn’t manage to abort, or you could meet the same end as the woman in last Thursday’s news.

Better not to be a black woman from Eritrea. A serious examination of your status in accordance with the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees will find you eligible for refugee status, even only in light of your being a woman. For now, you, the reader, should be thankful for your good luck, which landed you in a place where you can fight: for representation in determining the fate of your society, for equal pay for equal work, and to rescue personal matters from the hands of religious courts whose codex of laws were determined in the middle of the 16th century.

Remember your sister from Eritrea. Raise up your voice for her. The governments of Israel and Egypt know the identities of the rapists, thieves and murderers who smuggle refugees across the border. They even know their phone numbers. They could stop them – if they only wanted to.

Translated by Noa Yachot

Minna Rozen is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Haifa and a volunteer at the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Read more about her here.