Sexual and Reproductive Health of Sudanese Women After a Journey of Escaping War and Seeking Refuge in Egypt
By: Faten Sobhi
On a dark night, Ikhlas was terrified after missiles split her house in half and she decided to flee to Egypt in mid-April. She carried her baby and took her sons and mother, heading towards the border. The journey lasted several days during which she ran out of money, her breasts dried up for her baby, and she could not provide diapers or formula milk.
Passing through the crossing, Ikhlas arrived in Cairo, encumbered with the burden of caring for six children, the eldest of whom is 18 years old and the youngest a year and a half, along with an elderly mother. She was trapped in anxiety and suffered from sleep disorders. After being hosted by a Sudanese family for several days, she moved into a small accommodation that guaranteed independence for her family, after receiving support from UNHCR.
Through its official website, UNHCR presents the types of support it provides for refugee women, especially pregnant and breastfeeding women. Its programs included mental and sexual health, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, and the provision of treatment. It also included prenatal and postnatal care.
Reproductive health programs included providing contraceptives, clinical management of violence and rape, abortion, fistula prevention and treatment, and cervical cancer screening and treatment.
Escape, amid international abandonment
Since the beginning of the war, refugee women have suffered from sexual abuse and exploitation and have been forced to help militants. During that period, the efforts of human rights organizations and international assistance bodies have not been effective in protecting women and girls from this violence and transferring them to safe places.
This prompted them to seek refuge in neighboring countries, especially Egypt, in the hope of survival. However, each escape experience was unique, and women went through it alone with their families, including children and the elderly.
Many of them did not find material or moral assistance, which made the journey more difficult. During these arduous journeys, they were exploited by “transport brokers”, who demanded sizeable sums of money, or abused women who wanted to escape.
Finally, they reached the border. They were surprised that the cost of a visa rose from 2,000 Egyptian pounds, worth 65 US dollars, to more than 10,000, or an estimated 350 dollars.
After allowing the visa-free entry of Sudanese women, the Egyptian government decided in early June to impose visas under the pretext of curbing fraud. This has increased difficulties for women and made them vulnerable to further exploitation and violations.
After a terrifying escape journey, their suffering increased as they ran out of money, with no effective support from human rights bodies. Survivors’ biggest concern shifted from the fear of an unknown fate to merely wishing for time to pass while grappling with the children’s feelings of fear and hunger.
A sign of hope at the border
After days of agony at the border, the Egyptian Red Crescent and some humanitarian aid organizations extended a helping hand. However, local people’s support was kind to them, and they found some simple food for themselves and the children. The locals and some feminist activists provided even infant formula and diapers in the Egyptian governorate of Aswan.
Some Sudanese women moved to Cairo, specifically the popular Faisal neighborhood in the Giza governorate. Of course, every survivor, especially if she was a mother, had to rely on herself to provide housing for her family. Here, it was the local’s turn, as several individual calls emerged to provide free housing and furniture. Sudanese women who received housing were also keen to host other survivors.
But their arrival in Egypt does not mean that they are completely safe. Most women are vulnerable to abuse, especially if they are victims of war or refugees. Many instances of violence and exploitation are experienced by Sudanese, Syrian, and Yemeni refugee women in Egypt, especially with the depletion of resources and the lack of a stable source of income.
Double burdens after the escape
Ikhlas Al-Hadi, a native of northern Sudan, recounts benefiting from the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) mental and sexual health initiative.
“My strongest need was to have someone listen to me. I talked relentlessly and chaotically about everything that worries me and hurts my soul and my body. The experience of escaping and leaving home and homeland was terrifying. In addition to the burden of my breast milk drying up, the screaming of my baby, the panic of my children, accompanied by my elderly mother.”
N.A., 38, was very sick after experiencing childbirth during the escape journey. N.A. tells “Sharika Wa Laken” that the psychological and health care that women should receive while they are about to give birth was a luxury for them, considering the heavy cost of childbirth itself and the post-natal treatment, which increased psychological pressure. She adds that the most important gain in the meetings was “venting out”, about her inhumane travel experience and the troubles of pregnancy and childbirth in the midst of it.
According to Christine Bishay, spokesperson for UNHCR in Egypt, the highest percentages of Sudanese refugees fleeing the war are women, children, and the elderly. Therefore, most women who arrived in Egypt carrying their children, and sometimes mothers, were without husbands, due to the ease of obtaining a visa. Upon arrival, asylum applications are registered.
Survivors endure all this suffering while bearing the brunt of protecting their families to survive the war, in addition to the fact that some of them are pregnant, about to give birth, or breastfeeding. During these stages, women suffer from physical and psychological troubles that require rest, calmness, stress relief, and balanced nutrition.
Even if they have not recently had children or are not pregnant, menstruation and sexual and reproductive health care needs during escape journeys are still some of these burdens. Healthy nutrition, comfort, and the provision of sanitary pads become a luxury, with the presence of this long list of needs.
What happens after escaping the war?
Having shared or free accommodation with a host family is a temporary solution. This is because hosting or sharing housing compromises women’s right to privacy, especially if there are children.
War survivors must engage in a heated race to get independent accommodation, even if it is only a room with a bathroom. Conditions force them into the labor market, without having any demands other than accepting what is available so that they can provide food for their families, and find independent housing.
Therefore, civil society must assume its role in supporting them to emerge from these miserable and catastrophic conditions. International aid agencies in Egypt should provide humane employment opportunities that protect their dignity and provide them with a stable income. Coordination between local and international organizations and the Egyptian government to help them is a matter of extreme importance and urgency in light of the dire economic conditions that all classes in Egypt are suffering from.