International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. Most often, we take the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the great or exceptional women among us. But this day also offers the opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the achievements of arguably one of the most invisible and marginalized groups of women in Israeli society: the 12,216 African asylum-seeking women in Israel who have fled crushing persecution and devastating war at home.
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They have all faced and continue to face a range of challenges. A large proportion of these women have been victims of severe trauma, including torture, rape and the inhumanity of human trafficking. Many are single mothers, who face abject poverty and social exclusion and isolation. They work multiple low-wage jobs, and are forced to put their children in inadequate and overcrowded nurseries in their attempts to survive. Their attempts at survival occur largely in a pervading atmosphere of xenophobia and racism. None of these women have been granted refugee status by the state, and consequently none of them have any social rights – little to no access to welfare and health rights, and no permission to work.
In the face of all this, asylum-seeking women in Israel should be congratulated, celebrated and even emulated for their astounding resilience. Their strength is reflected in their life stories: fleeing the only homes they have known; their strength to survive unspeakable trauma, aggression and hostility; and their strength to continue each day despite the many adversities they face.
There are women in the community who despite all they have faced, fight to fulfill themselves and contribute to their community. Be they community leaders, interpreters, nursery school teachers, entrepreneurs, cooks and helpers. These are women like P, who was brutally gang-raped in the Sinai desert and subsequently gave birth to a child with severe disabilities; T, who had open-heart surgery a month after her baby was born; L, who fled Eritrea leaving all of her children, was diagnosed with cancer and despite initial treatment has no access to ongoing health treatment; B, whose husband abandoned her and her children, leaving her to fend for herself; K, whose child died tragically and did not receive a single day of compassionate leave.
But rather than being respected, they are mostly dehumanized, delegitimized, forgotten and ignored. Most Israelis are entirely unsympathetic, focusing on them as criminal infiltrators seeking economic advantage. Really? Does this sort of thinking really reflect the reality? This is how Jewish refugees in Europe were once viewed – over the past two generations they have more than proved this kind of thinking to be grossly wrong.
These asylum-seeking women have lessons to teach about resilience. These women can contribute to a stronger and more enduring future for our entire community. We should be encouraging and supporting women like this rather than adding to their burdens. Moreover, these women have a very real role to play in building the future. They play a pivotal role in the health, wellbeing and education of their children. By enabling asylum-seeking women and strengthening their resilience, we enable a whole generation of refugee children who right now, at this point in time, are not going anywhere.
Resilience is not only up to the individual women themselves. Society as a whole has an obligation to enable the resilience of these women through access to basic social rights. Imagine if for this International Women’s Day we would collectively and courageously face our fears of the other, see them dissipate. We could show humanity by responding to the needs of these courageous women in the asylum-seeking community. This would not only empower and dignify them, it would empower and dignify us. We could embrace and celebrate cultural diversity rather than fear and shun it. Women would in turn feel valued and respected.
This International Women’s Day serves as a reminder of the continued action that is required to ensure the rights of all women in our society. Asylum is a human right and women’s rights are human rights. Our congratulations are due to the 12,216 asylum-seeking women in Israel for surviving another day, for your strength, courage and fortitude. Happy International Women’s Day.
Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn is cofounder and CEO of Kuchinate: African Refugee Women’s Collective. She is also a board member of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center.
Sister Aziza Kidane is co-CEO of Kuchinate, a board member of the Eritrean Women’s Center and volunteers at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.