Frozen Words: Memory and Sexual Violence Amongst Sudanese Refugee Women in Cairo

Friday, June 1, 2012
Ginger A. Johnson
Eastern Africa

This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in Egypt with South Sudanese female refugees seeking educational, legal and psychosocial services at St. Andrew's Refugee Services in downtown Cairo. The information presented in the paper derives from participant observation, interviews with single South Sudanese women and NGO service providers between August 2011 and February 2012.

The author assisted in preparing refugee resettlement referrals to UNHCR throughout the research period and also undertook an analysis of relevant media articles, policy documents, internet blogs and literature produced by UNHCR and the Egyptian government between January 2004 and February 2012. Pseudonyms are provided for all women discussed in this work. Institutional Review Board approval from the University of South Florida was obtained prior to beginning fieldwork.
Unsurprisingly, women primarily discussed the destruction of their communities and loss of husbands as the deciding factor for fleeing South Sudan. Sexual violence against them played a significant role in both occurrences and was often the basis for questions asked during refugee status determination with UNHCR. Due to the taboo of discussing rape and the extreme power differentials between the survivors of rape and their interviewers we can extrapolate that incidences of sexual violence against Southern Sudanese women (in both their country of origin and asylum) we know about pale in comparison to those actually committed.

Conclusion and recommendations

Refugee women, all too often, have become the objects of writings, not the subjects. There are hidden dimensions of single women's refugee experience through histories unable to be communicated due to difficulty speaking, failure to recover (specific) detailed memories of violence in a life of endured conflict, and the inability of individual language when spoken in isolation to form a collective history of an event. By noting that women with a history of sexual violence breach the difficulties in speaking of their personal experiences only through communications to UNHCR to secure asylum and refugee status, we may begin to understand why women are so often portrayed as the objects of violence, not the subjects of ethnographies. Here we may also begin to understand why single women with a history of sexual violence do not choose repatriation despite post-CPA pressure and the increasingly violent, racist and economically challenging living conditions they face daily in Egypt.

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Frozen Words: Memory and Sexual Violence Amongst Sudanese Refugee Women in Cairo