Anyone crossing the sea to escape a dangerous situation, or to find a better life, is in a vulnerable position. But women face the additional burdens of gender discrimination and, all too often, gender-based violence, along their journeys.
On board the Geo Barents, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescue ship in the central Mediterranean, female survivors regularly disclose practices such as forced marriage or genital mutilation (affecting either themselves or their daughters) as being among the reasons they were forced to leave their homes. Many women rescued also report having experienced various forms of violence, including psychological and sexual violence, as well as forced prostitution.
The experiences recounted by the four survivors below are sadly common among the women and men rescued by the Geo Barents. On the occasion of International Women's Day, Tales of Women at Sea aims to amplify the voices of women rescued.
Sarah, 25 years old, from Tigray in Ethiopia
When the violence in Tigray started two years ago and her town was bombed, Sarah was at work. She fled for her life to Sudan.
“I witnessed many people being killed during the assault. I simply ran. I did not have time to understand what was going on or to gather my belongings. My son was in town during the attack with the rest of my family. I could not even bring him with me. He is eight years old now and I have only spoken to him once in almost a year.
I know that some relatives are looking after him but there is not a day that goes by without me thinking of him. I worry about my son: I do not know how he is or what he is doing.
I went to Khartoum, in Sudan, to work and save some money to send to my child, but I was an illegal migrant in the country. I was afraid of being caught and imprisoned, as had happened to many others in my situation.
I was held captive for two months and was only released when I paid the ransom. I gave them the money I earned while working in Khartoum.Sarah, 25, from Tigray in Ethiopia
After a few months, a friend of mine helped me to go to Libya. I travelled with a group of people but I did not know any of them. I was alone. We spent five days in the desert. After entering Libya, we were taken to a prison.
There were no men in uniform, but the wardens were heavily armed. They used to beat the men every day. There was not enough food for everyone. I was held captive for two months and was only released when I paid the ransom. I gave them the money I earned while working in Khartoum.
Then we were transferred to another place, where I was held captive for 10 months. They beat us but they kept us alive so they could extort money from us. Eventually I was let go because I could not pay another ransom. I arrived at the coast a few days later and boarded a rubber boat with many other people to cross the sea. It is the same boat in which you found me.”
Bintou, 42 years old, from Côte d’Ivoire
A mother of four, Bintou decided to leave her home when, following her husband’s death, her in-laws tried to take her children away from her and force her older daughter, Miriam, to get married. Taking her two older daughters with her, she headed for Libya, leaving her two younger children behind.
When they entered Libya, they were arrested and put in prison. “In Libya, because there is no government, everyone is a policeman. Even when they catch you, you do not know who the real police are... They caught us and put us in a small hut – men, women, all together. It was very hard. Some young men broke down the door and we ran away.”
Having escaped prison, Bintou and her daughters started working at a man's house, even though he did not pay them. He knew they wanted to cross the sea. One day, he took them to a boat waiting on the shore. It was their first attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
Bintou has not seen her two youngest children in the two years since she left Côte d’Ivoire. “I would like my children to grow up to be somebody. When I was a child, I experienced a lot of bad things. My mother was blind. She had 15 children but only three survived. I was the only girl. I was forced into marriage. I did not go to school. I want to send my children to school. I do not want my children to be forced into marriage like I was. I don’t want my girls to have a life like mine.”
Christelle, 36 years old, from Cameroon
A mother of three, Christelle left her violent husband and found herself a job with a small business selling plantains. One day, on the way to work between Maroua and Kousséri, in north Cameroon, she was kidnapped by Boko Haram militants who took her across the border to Nigeria. Helped by a woman she met, she managed to escape and make her way to the city of Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria, where she stayed with another woman and found work in a restaurant.
After six months, she saved enough money to leave with a group of others for Libya. Crossing from Algeria to Libya, she was the victim of sexual violence. When she reached Libya, she was taken straight to prison.
“At the Libyan border, during the night, the people who were guiding us raped us. We were also shot at, we scattered, we got lost and we found ourselves with two children who did not speak French, without their mothers, who had disappeared... We spent three days looking for their mothers before leaving the children on their own. Who can take care of unknown children? The trauma of Libya began as soon as we entered the country.
The trauma of Libya began as soon as we entered the country. When we arrived in Libya, after two weeks on the road, they arrested us and put us in jail.Christelle, 36, from Cameroon
When we arrived in Libya, after two weeks on the road, they arrested us and put us in jail. I had no one I could call to send money and free me. A man decided to help me and paid for me. After that, I made a six-month marriage contract with him. In prison, I realised that I was pregnant, but I lost the child. It was a relief.
I tried to cross [the Mediterranean] twice. The first time, we had been at sea for less than 30 minutes when the Libyans arrested us in the middle of the night and immediately put us in jail. The second time [we made it across safely].”
Decrichelle, 32 years old, from Cameroon
A mother of two, Decrichelle was forced into marriage after her first husband died in a car accident. The family forced her to marry her husband’s brother, a man who drank heavily and beat her. She had two miscarriages as a result of this violence. She became pregnant a third time and gave birth to a girl. When the child was six months old, her husband beat her so badly that she ended up in hospital.
Soon after, she fled her home with her baby and, with the encouragement of a friend, decided to leave for Nigeria, and then travelled on to Niger and Algeria. In the desert on the way to Algeria, her daughter fell ill, but without medicines or medical care, she died. Decrichelle had to leave her daughter’s body in the desert and continue with the group towards Algeria. She recalls feeling “an immense and inconsolable sadness”.
The first time Decrichelle tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea, she was arrested and sent to prison. She was released almost immediately and put in a cab to a brothel where she was expected to work as a prostitute. A couple of Cameroonian friends helped her escape.
For six months, she lived in the campos – the empty buildings or outdoor spaces near the sea where traffickers gather migrants – before raising enough money to attempt a second crossing.
“I want to be in a place where I can live like a normal person. I’ve had too much suffering, too much stress. I want to be able to sleep at night. I wanted to be with my child. It hurts me to think that I am safe but I had to leave her in the desert.”