Victims of economic exploitation, migrant women also suffer the effects of stigmatization associated with the sexual abuse they have endured in their countries of origin, along their migratory journey, or after setting foot in Tunisia. Such abuse is « almost inevitable » as migrants make their way to Tunisia, according to Rim Abdelmalek, professor of infectious disease at the Rabta Hospital in Tunis. Abdelmalek spoke during a conference organized by the country’s National Program to Combat AIDS in partnership with the UNAIDS on October 20.

« We treated a male migrant who had been forced by officers to have sexual intercourse with a group of nine female migrants upon the threat of death. This occurred at the Algerian border. And it is not an isolated case », the doctor noted.

A path strewn with violence

Women migrants reach Tunisia only after facing a long ordeal in their country of origin. Fatou, a 44-year old Ivorian woman, arrived in Tunisia in 2016. Born of rape, Fatou was confronted with the trials of social stigmatization from as far back as she can remember. « My twin sister and I were looked down upon. We were never called by our names. We were called ‘the bastards’ ». Raised by her mother’s family, she was raped by her uncle until the age of 12.

« For my uncle, like for the rest of society, I was less than nothing », she recalls, bursting into tears. Fatou takes a few moments to gather herself before continuing. « At that time, I met my future husband. He was supposed to free me from my Uncle. But I was also not welcome in his family ».

At 12 years old, Fatou became pregnant. « I don’t know if this first child was my uncle’s or my fiancé’s » she says in a tone of resignation. She had three more children before leaving Abidjan. « I hoped to start a new life far from all that », she recounts. She landed in Tunisia legally, on a direct flight from the Ivory Coast.

Migratory routes to Europe. Credit: Terre d’asile.

Kadiatou, on the other hand, traversed land borders to reach Tunisia. From Guinea, she crossed Mali and Algeria. Born a boy, Kadiatou is a transsexual woman. She was also the victim of sexual assault.

« At 10, I was raped by a man. But my family didn’t see me as a victim; they saw me as cursed ». Forbidden from going to school and driven away by a father who threatened to kill her, Kadiatou fled her country in 2018, accompanied by her brother. The latter did not survive the trek across the desert.

Kadiatou remained in Algeria from 2018-2021, confined to a house crammed with migrants from different countries. « I cooked for them. Some abused me. They called me a faggot », she recalls.

Like Kadiatou and Fatou, many migrants have suffered sexual abuse or fled forced marriages. « Some were raped in their countries of origin and emigrated for this reason. Others were raped as they crossed borders » reports one psychologist who works for an international NGO and wished to remain anonymous « in order to protect [her] patients ».

« These rapes took place all throughout or during one leg of the journey. Sometimes they are used as currency for letting the victim pass if she no longer has money to pay the rest of the way. Some relate that they were gang raped, or else raped in front of their husbands and their children », the psychologist reports.

The same observation is shared by Wafa Fraouis, director of Beity, a shelter for women victims of violence. Beity serves migrant women in particular. As Fraouis explains, many migrant women who arrive by land across the Libyan border describe the same ordeal: gang rapes perpetrated over a long period of time.

In 2017, the discovery of human trafficking in Libya roused public outcry. Seven years later, this form of modern slavery remains intact. « We still receive testimonies from women who have been detained in centers where they never found out who was running them—the Libyan government or militia groups. They report that different men assaulted them several times a day ».

Some were released after becoming pregnant. They don’t even know who might be the father of their children. Others are forced to procure the sum necessary to pay a smuggler in order to extract themselves from the nightmare in which they are trapped. The lucky ones manage to escape, Fraouis remarks.

Shattered dreams

In leaving behind their countries of origin, these women hope to secure a better future for themselves. The intermediaries charged with facilitating their emigration make promises of prospects for decent work. As a social worker in the Ivory Coast, Fatou imagined she would pursue the same career in Tunisia.

Residing in Tunisia illegally, migrant women are easy prey. Credit: Tarek Laabidi, Nawaat

Upon her arrival in Tunisia, Fatou’s passport was confiscated by an Ivorian intermediary. She was forced to work as a housekeeper and pay him her first six months of wages. Like Fatou, many become familiar with the false promises presented by intermediaries. For some, promises of decent work give way to the reality of prostitution, explains the psychologist.

According to the most recent report published by the National Authority to Combat Human Trafficking (INLTP), 77% of trafficking cases (including economic, sexual, etc. exploitation) recorded for 2021 involved women. Foreigners accounted for 82% of cases.

Residing in Tunisia illegally, women migrants are easy prey. The perpetrators of sexual assault can be Tunisian or members of their own communities. « Certain Tunisian employers use irregular status as a threat; migrant women are told that they will be turned over to the police if they resist an employer’s sexual advances », Fraouis informs Nawaat.

Kadiatou knows this from experience. Working in a restaurant, she was sexually assaulted by her employer. « I did not give in. So he fired me without pay » she remembers with bitterness.

In other cases, the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s own community. « Some men take advantage of their vulnerability, leading them to believe that they have married them, and then taking off. Sometimes, these women subsequently find out they are pregnant », Fraouis affirms.

Fatou was in a relationship with a member of her community. « It’s hard to live with other people in one apartment. Each person had a difficult background. Sharing my own story didn’t help. In their eyes, I simply became a bastard and failure ».

One year ago, Fatou was stabbed by a Tunisian. She continues to suffer complications from the wound. In the face of such violence, she had hoped to find in her companion « a protector ». Instead, the latter stole all of her money and made his way to Italy.

For these migrants, sexual abuse is part of daily life. « I took a taxi to come to this interview. During the ride, the driver started to touch me. He offered me ten dinars to have sex with him », Kadiatou tells us, anger coloring her voice.

She feels this anger every day. Housed by the UNHCR in the Bousselsla neighborhood of La Marsa, Kadiatou avoids going out. « Kids throw stones and insults at me ».

Fatou must go out for work as well as medical care. Although she is presumably in good hands at the hospital, she was humiliated by one of the nurses during a recent visit. « I was hooked up to an IV when he came under the pretext of examining me. He began touching my breasts with force, and masturbating. The next day, he returned as if nothing had happened, asking his colleagues if I was any better ». Fatou kept silent about the incident. « I couldn’t say anything. Nobody will believe me! » she says in tears.

Fatou does not intend to file a complaint. « Police do not take us seriously. They just record our complaints », she says.

However, Law 58 on the elimination of violence against women also applies to migrants. Nawaat reached out to the Ministry of Women regarding the number of migrant women victims of violence and the process for providing them with care. We never received a response. 

Struggle for survival

Carrying the burden of such traumas, these victims are in need of psychological support. Kadiatou and Fatou are covered for mental health care, however, discouraged by interaction with certain hospital staff, do not take full advantage of this service. « At the reception desk, they tell me, ‘Go ahead, go ahead’. I hear them whisper and laugh », recounts Kadiatou.

The psychologist concedes that this sort of discriminatory treatment towards migrants is commonplace. « We are working with other NGOs to facilitate medical care, and have observed several improvements. Medical staff have begun to get used to providing care for migrant populations », she explains.

In Tunisia, migrant women are the victims of discriminatory practices. Credit: Tarek Laabidi, Nawaat.

Ever since February 2023, President Kais Saied’s virulent discourse around immigrants has fueled a witch hunt which targets this population. Towards the beginning of August, many migrants were expelled and transported to desert regions at the Libyan and Algerian borders. Among those intercepted were women, exposed anew to sexual abuse.

Fatou says she is « trapped » in Tunisia. « With the way the situation has deteriorated, I feel like I no longer have the choice; I have to flee », she says. And she isn’t planning on returning to her own country. « Without money, I am nothing there ». Kadiatou, for her part, is afraid to set out to sea like many of her friends. But she also no longer wishes to remain in Tunisia.

Fatou is considering the sea-bound trek across the Mediterranean, although it is not without grave danger. Beyond the risk of dying at sea, she faces the possibility of falling into the hands of traffickers whose fortunes are built upon the lucrative business involving the sexual exploitation of migrants in Europe.

Fatou is well aware of these dangers, but believes her fate to lie in God’s hands. « In my life, I have only become stronger from my experiences. Maybe that is what He wanted for me. I beg his mercy ». Without any guarantees of survival, many believe that—someday, somehow—God will save them from their struggles.