Urban Forum

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 429–443 | Cite as

Refugees, Violence and Gender: the Case of Women in the Albert Park Area in Durban, South Africa

  • Sinenhlanhla Memela
  • Brij Maharaj


Women refugees are affected more by violence than any other female group in the world, before, during and after their forced migration experience, because of patriarchy. This paper examines the violence experienced by female refugees in Albert Park in Durban, South Africa. Albert Park is an area dominated by documented and undocumented foreign migrants from African countries, and since 2008, there have been many reported incidents of violence against refugees. The focus of this study is on intimate partner and public violence, the fear of urban public space and the failure of police protection encountered by female refugees as they have attempted to adapt and adjust in a hostile society, in Albert Park. Domestic tensions have emerged from a reversal of traditional patriarchal gender roles as female refugees have often become heads of households, while men had to tend to domestic chores. Female refugees are also afraid of using public space because they were subject to physical attacks, verbal abuse and sexual harassment from refugees, local people and taxi drivers and conductors. This has been aggravated by the high levels of xenophobic violence in South Africa, tensions between local people and foreigners and the knowledge that police protection is limited.


Women Refugees Violence Patriarchy Durban South Africa 


Violence against women is a widespread global problem in times of peace and war. Violence against women includes sexual abuse and harassment, trafficking femicide, intimate partner violence and forced sex work (UN 1993; Jewkes 2002). South Africa has a high level of sexual violence against women and children, and between 01 April 2014 and 31 March 2015, 99 in every 100,000 people were sexually assaulted (Institute for Security Studies 2015:3). However, only 1 in 4 women reported experiences of sexual violence because of a fear of stigmatisation (Abrahams and Gevers 2017). The number of actual cases is much higher among vulnerable female refugees.

Against this background, this paper investigates violence experienced by female refugees, using a case study of the Albert Park area in Durban, South Africa. The Albert Park area is dominated by documented and undocumented foreign migrants from African countries, and since 2008, there have been many reported incidents of violence against refugees (Bond et al. 2008; Desai 2010). However, there is limited published literature that focuses on the vulnerabilities of African female refugees, with Palmary (2006) being a notable exception. The specific focus of this paper is on domestic violence, the fear of urban public space and the failure of police protection in this area. Conceptually, this paper is influenced by the notion that refugee women experience violence because of the patriarchal system, which relegates them to subordinate positions, and favours men as dominant, authoritarian, protectors, controllers and leaders (Mcarthur 2013). They had few legal rights and were powerless and marginalised, and their voices are rarely heard. Patriarchal gender relations serve to divide private and public space, as well as to naturalise work and home as representing masculine and feminine domains, respectively, and force women to be dependent on men for financial support (Johnson 2005; Macé 2018). Some societies present patriarchal relations through regulating women’s behaviour in public space, and by dictating how they should dress because of the cultural and religious norms (Mancini 2012).

In some regions, including North America, Europe and Australia, violence against women is exacerbated by their national identity (Menjivar and Salcido 2002; Hersh and Obser 2016). As migrants, they experience language barriers, isolation, lack of employment opportunities and uncertain legal status. Refugee women have less human agency, especially when newly arrived in the destination country. Making the decision to migrate is often one of the first opportunities for refugee women to use their human agency. Even though women feared public spaces and were oppressed by males, they were not passive objects in a space in which they experienced obligations and restrictions. Rather, they could also ‘reproduce, reclaim and redefine space’ (Koskela 1997:7).

International experience suggests that forced displacement can change patriarchal gender roles through programmes that empower women. Since 1980, the UNHCR and other United Nation agencies have developed special programmes that aimed to assist refugee women so that they can be economically empowered and independent. For example, in Sri Lanka, programmes designed for refugee women included ceramic, handicraft, welding, carpentry and soup making as well as repairing tractors and bicycles (Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. 2008; Hyndman and De Alwis 2008).

However, these programmes did not cater to men who ended up spending most of their time at home, participating in domestic work (Martin 2004). Difficulties in finding employment frustrated men because their traditional gender role as household head and provider for the family was challenged (Brun 2000; Gangamma 2018). The programmes thus disrupted traditional gender roles but did not confront patriarchal prejudice against female refugees and the unequal power relations in which they were trapped (Indra 1999; Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. 2008; Hyndman and De Alwis 2008). The focus was on the needs of female refugees in isolation, as if they were living separately from males. Tensions increased between partners leading to disagreements and conflict in the household (Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. 2008).

According to Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution, refugees enjoy the same rights as South Africans, except for the right to vote and hold political office. However, the government has failed to progress beyond constitutional rhetoric (Maharaj 2009). In South Africa, refugees live together with locals and experience xenophobia and discrimination (Amisi and Ballard 2005; Bond et al. 2008; Schwarer and Mwelase 2008; Sigsworth et al. 2008; Fuller 2008).

In South Africa, female refugees have been subjected to sexual violence during and after their journey (Sigsworth et al. 2008) and were also denied access to health care services, education and shelter (Amisi and Ballard 2005; Schwarer and Mwelase 2008; Bond et al. 2008; Desai 2010). This was further compounded by xenophobic attitudes which prevented the integration of refugees into mainstream society (Amisi et al. 2010).

This paper is divided into five sections. The first section presents a background and context to the study. The second section provides a description of the study area and an explanation of the research methodology. Violence against women is the theme of the third section, which discusses intimate partner violence, and this is followed by an analysis of the fear of urban public space. The final section focuses on the failure of police protection.

Background and Context

In May 2008, there were xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa. Approximately 100,000 foreigners were displaced and 670 injured; 12 women were raped, and 62 people were killed, including 21 South Africans (Misago et al. 2009:7–12). The attacks started in Alexandra Township in Gauteng province, and then spread all over South Africa, including Albert Park. Amisi et al. (2010) asserted that the attacks of 2008 affected refugee and migrant women, men and children differently in the Albert Park area. Refugee and migrant women did not experience physical attack as they remained indoors, but they were subjected to emotional abuse, as they watched their male counterparts being attacked by South Africans. Men experienced more physical attacks as they were always on the streets. Refugee and migrant children were also harassed by taxi drivers and conductors, local people and other children on their way to and from school. In Durban, a migrant child was stabbed by another pupil at Addington Primary School (Amisi et al. 2010).

In one study, Congolese women reported that the 2008 attacks made them feel vulnerable and humiliated as they watched their partners and family members being attacked (Schwarer and Mwelase 2008). About 47 displaced Congolese refugees, mostly women and children, built shelters in the Albert Park public ground (Bond et al. 2008; Desai 2010). Refugees asked the eThekwini municipality to proclaim the Albert Park public ground as an official refugee camp. The municipality refused claiming no budget was allocated for refugees.

On 1st November 2008, police officers removed the refugees’ shelter in Albert Park and confiscated their goods and their permits, because of pressure from Durban City manager, Mike Sutcliffe, in anticipation for the FIFA 2010 World Cup (Bond et al. 2008; Desai 2010). Sutcliffe wanted to ensure that Durban was clean during the 2010 World Cup and that there were no traders or vagrants on the streets (Bond et al. 2008). After this incident, police officers became more hostile towards refugees.

In January 2009, refugees in the Albert Park area were attacked again. These attacks were not the same as in other parts of South Africa, where ordinary citizens were involved. However, in the Albert Park area, the attacks were co-ordinated and led by a former ward councillor, police officers and some local people, apparently with the approval of the eThekwini municipality (Schwarer and Mwelase 2008; Amisi et al. 2010; Desai 2010). The attacks were driven by the notion that foreigners were responsible for increasing problems such as crime, diseases, littering and overcrowding in the area (Maharaj 2009; Amisi et al. 2010).

Some refugees left the Albert Park area, while other remained and were assisted by non-governmental organisations, including Refugee Social Service (RSS) and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), which were located at Diakonia Centre1 (Bond et al. 2008; Desai 2010). The South African government did not offer financial support to these organisations, but the United Nations for High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continued to fund them (Desai 2010).

The Albert Park area has a history of xenophobia against African foreigners, which were racialised as only black African foreigners were targeted.

Study Area and Methodology

The Albert Park area is located south-east of the Durban CBD, the third largest city in South Africa (Matuma 2010) (see Fig. 1). It is a cultural diverse suburb, receiving an influx of refugees and migrants from different African countries. It lies in Ward 32 of the eThekwini municipality which was designated a white group area in terms of the Group Areas Act (1950).
Fig. 1

Geographical location of Albert Park area

In the mid-1980s, the characteristics of the Albert Park area began to change, as whites moved to the suburbs. The black population began to increase, ‘which blurred race-space divisions and led to the formation of grey areas’ (Maharaj and Mpungose 1994:19). After the 1994 democratic elections, white people who could afford to buy property elsewhere left the Albert Park area. Many elderly white pensioners could not leave the area because they did not have savings to pay for new accommodation. The current population of the Albert Park area is very diverse, consisting of white and black young professionals, old white pensioners, tertiary students, refugees and migrants from African countries, drawn to the area by access to work opportunities, cheap accommodation, transport (mini-bus taxis) and markets for consumer goods (Matuma 2010). Refugees and migrants choose Albert Park because it is close to non-governmental organisations that provide services for them, such as RSS and LHR offices, which were in the Diakonia Centre in St Andrews Street.

Migration inflows into the Albert Park area occurred alongside capital flight to the suburbs, leaving in its wake urban decay and crime. Urban decay was caused by overcrowding, which often increased water and electricity bills, which property owners were frequently unable to pay, which in turn has resulted in their services being cut-off by the eThekwini municipality (Matuma 2010). Many buildings were dangerous, unhealthy and without electricity and water and proper sewage systems and were not fit for human habitation. Some opportunistic property owners also converted warehouses and old buildings insufficient for service facilities into family rentals, mostly for illegal immigrants. There were 52 taverns in one square kilometre, with many sex workers and drug dealers contributing to increased crime rates (Matuma 2010).

Snowball sampling was used to select female refugee participants for this study. The first author developed contacts with female refugees by engaging in refugee support activities for 18 months in Albert Park area, earning the trust and confidence of women. She also worked as a volunteer at the RSS, an NGO, where officials referred her to women refugees who agreed to be part of the study. The sample population compromised 27 female refugees above the age of 18 years from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. All the refugee women interviewed for this study migrated because of conflict in their home countries. They came to South Africa to seek protection and to escape human rights violations.

The interviews were conducted in the first half of 2014 on a face-to-face basis in refugees’ homes and workplaces to understand their life histories and experiences. The life history approach allowed participants to talk about their experiences in relation to specific events and issues (Payne and Payne 2004; Ojermark 2007). In-depth interviews were also conducted with RSS officials to get their perspective regarding violence against refugee women.

Three languages were used during interviews with refugees, namely French, Swahili and English, and the researcher was assisted by a male translator who was himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He worked as an interpreter at RSS and he could speak English, French and Swahili. He had been working with vulnerable female refugees for years and was trained to be gender sensitive. Since female refugees have been working closely with him before the study was conducted, they were comfortable around him and felt safe. Some of the primary data collected using a life history approach was recorded with the permission of respondents.

Narrative analysis was chosen as an analytic approach for this study because it searches for the way respondents make sense of their experiences by presenting them in a story format: ‘A narrator repeatedly retells the same story even if they use different words, but recurrent themes are often embedded within different sort of stories’ (Phoenix 2008:67). Themes were developed to capture the essence of the refugees’ stories to help organise the way life stories were told and ‘cluster around recurrent content in stories’ (Phoenix 2008:67). The themes identified in this research related to domestic violence, fear of public space and failure of police protection. Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of participants.

Violence Against Refugee Women in Albert Park

Refugee women have the right to freedom, safety and security as guaranteed in Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution, to all people living in the country. This includes the right to be free from any form of violence, and not to be punished or treated in a degrading and inhuman way. However, in Albert Park, the rights of refugee women were often violated and were subjected to intimate partner violence as well as physical, verbal abuse and sexual harassment perpetrated by partners, local people and police officers.

Intimate Partner Violence

About 8 out of 27 female refugees experienced physical and emotional abuse and they spoke about their intimate partner violence experiences:

My husband left me in February 2013 and never came back. Before he left, in 2009 he was fired because he was always drunk at work every day. He was not working for seven months. There was no other source of income and we started to depend on childcare social grant support. The social grant was very small, so we had to find the cheapest accommodation. I spoke to him to stop drinking… but he did not … He always came home late and demands social grant… if I did not give him social grant money he will start shouting and beat me… I always knew that when it’s pay day… there will be quarrels in the house (Anna, 18 February 2014).

A predictable pattern was evident—when a male head of household loses his job, he turns to alcohol and beats his wife. In the above case, the husband then disappeared, and the abused wife became the sole supporter of the family. In migrant communities, men’s unemployment and women’s economic empowerment contributes to intimate partner violence. Men lose their bargaining power to control household economic decisions, threatening gender roles in the family structure (Sigsworth et al. 2008). Men may use violence to gain their power back as authoritarian household heads.
Most of the women interviewed did not report intimate partner violence to the police. Only two (out of eight) respondents reported the incidence to the authorities. Most were too scared to report it to the police or to talk about it with social workers due to social stigmatisation and traditional notions of (dis)honour:

Female refugees were scared that if they report domestic violence, they will be embarrassed … in the public and everyone will know that they were abused. Even our clients that were experiencing domestic violence, they would not tell us… If we tell them to report to the police station, they will refuse and argue that it’s a disgrace to the family (RSS official, 18 July 2014).

This concurs with the research conducted with Latina families, where women were often encouraged not to disclose intimate partner violence as it was perceived as shameful (Vidales 2010). This encourages the perpetrator to continue abusing the partner because there would be no consequences.
Four married females (out of 27) were given joint refugee status permits with their husbands as the household head. They were therefore dependant and could not leave their abusive husbands, which was aggravated by alcohol abuse:

When he was drunk he used to beat me. Me and my kids we were registered as his dependants… it was hard to just disappear. It took two years to have refugee status permits that is not linked to him … now I am applying for resettlement … I want to go to the United Kingdom, the third country. I am running away from my husband … currently I am working as a domestic worker to support my kids (Elizabeth,25 February 2014).

Elizabeth, one of the respondents with joint refugee status with her husband was trapped in an abusive relationship and there was no way out except by applying for separate refugee status with her children. Valji et al. (2003) argue that South African status determination authorities often assume that women were appendages of their husbands, and that their experiences were the same and that they should be given refugee status as a family. Under these circumstances, refugee women lacked legal autonomy and were entirely dependent on male partners and this increased their vulnerability. Women were often forced to stay with abusive partners, because of their joint refugee status designation. It is ironical that South Africa’s progressive constitution emphasises gender equality, but patriarchal gender relations apply during the refugee status determination process.
Most empowerment programmes developed by the RSS were designed for refugee women. All refugee women interviewed participated in one of the empowerment programmes. Female refugees got jobs and became heads of households, while men were jobless and spent most of their time at home. Six women interviewed argued that the changing family structure frustrated their husbands, who believed that their authority had been undermined, and this led to domestic violence, divorce and abandonment, as typified by the following case:

When I came to Durban, I went to the RSS office where I was trained to be home-based child care taker… we opened our centre with other refugee women… unfortunately my husband did not qualify to get training from the RSS office. It was very difficult for him… he stayed at home the whole day, cooking and cleaning… when I came back home he was always irritated and shouting at me… he took out all his frustration on me (Stella, 27 February 2014).

The public/private and home/work ideology has been reversed and new gender roles and relations emerged in the Albert Park area as economically active women were able to assert agency and make independent decisions, which challenged patriarchal norms. The failure to conform to traditional patriarchal norms has contributed to intimate partner violence (Jewkes 2002; Grzywacz et al. 2009).

To summarise, the lack of employment opportunities resulted in frustrated male refugees resorting to alcohol and drug abuse, which has, in turn, led to an increase in aggression and intimate partner violence. The economic empowerment of refugee women challenged gender subordination, especially the male power to control income and decision-making, and traditional female subservience and obedience (Mustaine and Tewksbury 2002).

Due to intimate partner violence experiences, female refugees defined their domestic zone and surrounds as spaces of fear, anxiety, abuse and unhappiness. It was evident that violence against refugee women was widespread, and often started at home, in private spaces, and escalated into the public spaces, and this is discussed in the following section.

Fear of Urban Public Space

Urban public space includes parks, recreation areas, plazas, streets and all publicly managed and owned outdoor spaces, open to all (Tonnelat 2010). All female refugees interviewed were afraid of using public spaces because of a fear of physical attacks, verbal abuse and sexual harassment from refugees, local people and taxi drivers and conductors. Violence against refugee women in public space was also influenced by the ongoing xenophobic threats against foreign nationals in the country.

Some female refugees described the xenophobic attacks of 2009 and were very angry that this was led by local people, police officers and a former ward councillor:

… the foreign owned shops were vandalised, and we were taken out of our flats. My brother was injured, he was attacked on his way home. The attacks reminded me of the sufferings and the attacks we had faced back home and made me realise that we are not safe in South Africa (Doris, 28 February 2014).

This participant revealed that refugee women were not only vulnerable to intimate partner violence at home but also faced victimisation from locals, as well as the police who were legally required to provide security and promote safety. Refugee women also reported physical attacks in public spaces when using public transport. For example, Doris from Albert Park was attacked by a taxi conductor:

We took the taxi from South Beach to Albert Park Street with my cousin, we paid the transport fee… two people did not pay… the taxi conductor said ‘there are people who have not paid’… he started shouting at us and stopped the taxi and said we must get out because we refused to pay… as we were getting off the taxi, I was responding to him, he slapped me two times on the face and kicked me (Doris, 28 February 2014).

It seems the taxi conductor reported here found it easy to place blame on these two people who were probably perceived as foreigners, and he also attacked the woman. Perhaps he was also aware that nothing would happen to him in the context where reporting such incidences to the police was very low, and criminal conviction remote. It should also be noted that not only foreign women were subjected to sexual violence in taxis but also local women. In Noord Taxi Rank, a 25-year-old woman was stripped naked for wearing a miniskirt (Molatlhwa 2012). Taxi drivers believed that they could control what women should wear in public space and could threaten them with physical violence if they failed to abide. This relates to the patriarchal notion that men should be in charge, even controlling how women should dress.

In South Africa, when foreign women use taxis for commuting, they were often subjected to abuse and assault. Taxi drivers were violent and abusive towards foreigners, which has contributed to xenophobic attacks (Sigsworth et al. 2008).

Maria, who arrived in Feb 2013, was physically attacked and evicted from her place of accommodation in Albert Park by a security officer because she was a foreigner, although she paid the rent and deposit, and signed a lease agreement:

When I came back from the shop, I found my children outside the building. I was also told by the security officer that I am not allowed to enter the building. I showed the security officer proof of payment… I phoned the landlord and told him what happened… the landlord instructed the security officer to open. The security officer opened the gate and phoned another security officer who came and started to beat me and stripped me naked in front of the children… as he was beating me he was saying ‘there too much foreigners in this building’ (Maria, 17 February 2014).

Violence against this woman was manifested in sexual overtones, where she is stripped of her clothes. This shows that refugee women experience double jeopardy; they experienced physical and verbal attacks like men in a destination country, but were also targets of sexual attacks (Fuller 2008).
All the refugee women interviewed were subjected to verbal abuse from local people and were called ‘amakwerekwere’, a derogatory term to refer to black African foreigners (Bostick 2012), an insult that differentiates them from the rest of society. ‘Amakwerekwere’ is xenophobic language and is often hurled in public spaces like taxis and clinics:

I told taxi driver where I was going, and they dropped me far away. I asked them why? They told me they did not hear me and next time I should try to speak better and stop mumbling (Ukukwirikwiriza) (Charity, 19 February 2014).

Some refugee women were called amakwerekwere’ by other patients at public clinics:

I was in the queue, the other local people said I must move, she (a local person) told me that she came first and it’s her spot and she won’t be displaced by a ‘kwerekwere’… even if we do not speak it’s easy for them to identify foreign women because we like wearing our traditional attires (Sarah, personal communication, 26 February 2014).

In terms of national identity, the local South African citizen feels entitled to health care and demands priority assistance before Sarah, a refugee. This was a form of ‘female-to-female violence’, where the local woman felt more powerful than the refugee woman and could threaten the latter. Bwakali (2001) offered an interesting explanation that South African women were also victims of patriarchal oppression and were attempting to regain some authority by demonstrating a superiority over foreign females.

As in the case of Sarah, many foreign African women were easily identifiable because of their traditional attire, which made them susceptible to xenophobic attacks. Foreign women preserved their culture and identity through traditional dress and language to maintain symbolic connections with their home countries (Sigsworth et al. 2008). Sometimes they were forced to do so by traditional patriarchal structures which persist in their new destination. Changing dress codes and adopting the attire of locals can reduce violent attacks against refugee women. However, clothes also ‘serve as a political site within which perceptions of gender and nationalism are reshaped, thus creating the women’s refugee identity’ (Arev 2018:1).

In addition to the generalised attacks faced by foreign nationals, female refugees were also subjected to sexual harassment by local men and were scared to walk in public spaces or isolated areas at night:

I was walking along Victoria Embankment at night. I came across a man, who stopped me and demanded my phone and money… I gave him phone and told him I did not have money. He heard my accent and started to touch me all over and told me that foreign men like to take local women, now it’s his turn, but I manage to run away (Sarah, 26 February 2014).

Violence against foreigners in public spaces was gendered and refugee women were more vulnerable because of their sex and nationality, and many avoided walking alone at night:

We avoid walking at night alone… if we had to walk at night we need a male to accompany us. It is not safe for the women to walk alone at night as there are few people it’s easy to be sexually attacked (Sarah, 26 February 2014).

The fear of violent attacks controlled Sarah’s mobility and access to public space was restricted to specific time periods. She could not use public space at night alone. However, having a male accompanying her perpetuates the patriarchal notion of helpless women depending on males for protection. Some female refugees responded to their fear of urban violence by staying inside their home all day: ‘I only go out if I really need to go… other than that I prefer to stay at home all day’ (Rehena, 27 February 2014). When women opt to stay at home and avoiding public spaces because of the fear of male violence, this reinforced the patriarchal idea that a woman’s place is in private space (home). As Tandogan and Illhan (Tandogan and Ilhan 2016:2011) have suggested, ‘women are more exposed to fear of crime in cities [and] prefer to … avoid urban streets, parks, plazas, public transportation vehicles…’.

The violence experienced by refugee women in the Albert Park area caused fear, trauma and frustration, and it has confined them to private/domestic space as stipulated by patriarchal norms and limited their social interaction with local people. These violent attacks against refugee women could be viewed as a tactic used by South Africans to exclude foreigners from accessing services and public spaces (Sigsworth et al. 2008). The fear of urban violence compounds the trauma that most female refugees experienced in their home countries, and police protection was partisan.

Lack of Police Protection

In South Africa, everyone is entitled to police protection. However, national television has shown police officers attacking foreigners and arresting them. Police officers have harassed and stigmatised refugees, and portrayed them as criminals (Palmary 2004).

In the Albert Park area, female refugees claimed that they did not receive protection or assistance from the police:

My shop was robbed, and they took all my money and some of my goods. I went to report to the police station, where I was told that they were going to call me and give me the case number… up until today I have not received any feedback. It is useless to report to the police station because they fail to protect us (Roseline, 18 February 2014).

I went to Broad Police station to report that I was robbed… I was told to report in my own country (Jade, 17 February 2014).

Refugee women identified police stations as areas where they experienced xenophobia. Police officers discriminated against foreigners and were not gender sensitive. Palmary (2004) and Sigsworth et al. (2008) identified South African police stations as areas where refugees experienced the worst xenophobic behaviour. Refugee women did not receive police protection when reporting intimate partner violence:

My husband was cheating and used to beat me, and I went to police station for protection… I spoke to a male police officer who did not pay attention to me… my husband followed me to the police station… I thought the police officers would not allow him to come next to me… he talked to them. After few minutes he forced me to go with him (Queen, 20 February 2014).

Although Queen preferred to report complaints to women police officers, female officers have been found to hold negative attitudes towards women who report violence (Artz and Smythe 2007). Women who have experienced sexual assaults often prefer to talk to women about their traumatic experiences. In this case, care and support in the context of sexual violence tends to be gendered and embedded within the discourse of mothering (Bhana 2015). The failure to prosecute perpetrators frequently stems from the exclusion of women in legal institutions. Feminists suggest that engendering legal institutions can promote gender justice and women’s rights (Chappell and Durbach 2014).


This paper has examined violence experienced by female refugees in Albert Park, South Africa. The focus was on intimate partner violence, the fear of urban public space and the failure of police protection. As female refugees attempted to adjust in a hostile society, they encountered various forms of domestic and public violence in Albert Park, Durban. Female refugees were unable to report such violent incidents, especially experiences in private, domestic spaces, because of a fear of a backlash from their male partners. Their vulnerability was compounded because they also have had to endure verbal abuse and harassment from local people and police officers. These violent experiences had left female refugees traumatised, frustrated and scared in the Albert Park area.

Patriarchy and the associated unequal social and power relations was the analytical lens to understand violence against refugee women. The abuse, oppression and exploitation of refugee women are often associated with the patriarchal system (Indra 1999; Bwakali 2001; Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. 2008; Mcarthur 2013). After forced migration, the empowerment of women challenged dominant patriarchal gender roles which were reversed as female refugees became heads of households, while men had to tend to domestic chores. Hence, as McDowell (1999:1) has contended, notions of ‘feminity and masculinity vary over time and space’. These findings concur with the experience of displaced refugees in Sri Lanka (Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. 2008; Hyndman and De Alwis 2008).

In Albert Park, attempts were made to reinforce patriarchal control by violent forms of masculinities, subordinating women, forcing them to respect male authority in the household and restricting females’ public mobilities (Mustaine and Tewksbury 2002; Mcarthur 2013). The xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals and the failure of police to provide protection were major contributors to violence against refugee women in South Africa. This was related to the issue of national identity, which has been the cause of violence against refugees even in developed countries such as the USA, France, Canada, and Australia (Menjivar and Salcido 2002).

Foreign women were more vulnerable because they were representing a permanent settling of foreigners as they gave birth to babies and created families, while men were seen as temporary visitors (Sigsworth et al. 2008; Fuller 2008). The violence and vulnerability experienced by foreign women in the Albert Park area reflect the challenges experienced by refugees in South Africa and beyond. Female refugees are an extremely vulnerable group and South African migration policies and legal instruments failed to protect them.

As Rees and Pease (2007:3) have argued, ‘social injustices impacting on refugee communities, occurring at multiple sites, requires urgent attention if refugee women are to feel safer in their own homes’. Several recommendations emanate from this study to reduce violence against refugee women in the Albert Park area as well as other parts of South Africa. When refugee women enter South Africa, they should be issued separate refugee status permits and not be regarded as appendages to their male counterparts. There should also be training, empowerment and employment opportunities for male refugees. More female police officers should be available to attend to women, especially those who have experienced gender-based violence. All police officers need to be trained to be gender sensitive and to stop discriminating against foreigners. In the public transport sector, taxi associations should have nametags for drivers and conductors, and those who are hostile and rude towards refugee women can be identified.


  1. 1.

    RSS is an implementing partner of the UNHCR in South Africa and assists refugees and asylum seekers that have legal documentation with emergency social assistance. The LHR provides legal service to vulnerable and marginalised communities.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  2. 2.University of KwaZulu-NatalDurbanSouth Africa

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