One in three girl migrants interviewed in North Africa experienced or witnessed sexual abuse or other forms of gender-based violence while fleeing their home countries to find safety, according to a new study released by Save the Children today.
The study, titled ‘Girls on the Move in North Africa’, that set out to address the rarely researched topic of girl migrants, found many girls fled their homes due to violence, lack of job prospects as well as family conflicts and exposure to abuse and forced marriage, but then faced more threats and dangers on their journeys to or through North Africa.
Disasters, conflict, and violence have led to record numbers of people leaving their home countries, and around 281 million people across the world are international migrants. The Middle East and North Africa is home to the largest number of international child migrants – and the number of girls on the move is increasing.
Research conducted by Save the Children and social enterprise Samuel Hall was based on interviews held in 2022 with girls and young women between the ages of nine and 24, primarily from sub-Saharan African countries, migrating to, or through Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco – as well as arriving in Italy and Spain.
The study found that one in five of the girls interviewed cited violence in the home as a reason for migration*, whilst one in seven girls mentioned fleeing to escape forced or early marriage*.
Rainatou*, 20, who lives in Spain, described fleeing her abusive father who beat her repeatedly, and tried to marry her to an old man with three wives:
“My sisters fled home and we don’t have any news from them to this day. And when my dad found out, he burned my feet so that I couldn’t go outside. He said that if you don’t have feet, you can’t go out. He burned me with iron, he marked me with iron and fire so that I wouldn’t flee like my sisters… I fled my village … I didn’t want him to find me and do the same injuries to me or force me to marry.”
Rainatou finally managed to escape her village. Alone and without money, she walked for five days before being picked up by a truck and taken to the nearest city.
While the opportunities for advance planning were often limited, many girls were unaware of the full extent of the risks and dangers involved in migration before they travelled. Some girls employed coping mechanisms, to help minimise dangers, such as dressing as boys, or travelling with peers or adults for protection.
Marie*, 14, from Cameroon, who travelled with her mother, described multiple instances of being locked in houses in Morocco and Algeria. She said:
“We arrived in a small village. […] People came to pick us up and take us to another place with women and children. We stayed a few days without leaving the place, eating or drinking. In this place, they were raping people and even children. They were about to rape me as well, but my mother managed to save me.”
Another common risk during migration through North Africa was arrest or detention.
Noella*, 16, is from the Ivory Coast and now lives in Italy. She was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and sent to a detention centre, she said:
“They beat my head against the wall in Libya. They asked for money and I don’t have a family, so they treated me badly. Other times they put a plastic bag in your face. They wanted to hurt you.”
In addition to the threats and dangers, girls were also likely to encounter barriers to accessing core social services, including healthcare. One in six girls interviewed reported barriers in access to services both in transit as well as in their final destination*.
Girls who migrate need access to healthcare – including mental healthcare, but also maternal health services and birth registration, as well as education and housing. Language barriers, distrust of authorities, combined with a lack of documentation and awareness of available services, are further challenges.
Tory Clawson, Save the Children’s Migration and Displacement Initiative Director, said:
“Girls who are migrating need targeted support that takes into account the gendered risks and barriers they face. Starting in their home countries, girls and their families need better access to information about migration prior to their departure, so they can make informed decisions, and take steps to make the journey as safe as possible if they choose to move. In transit locations, urgent interventions are needed to improve girls’ access to social services, including medical care.”
Marion Guillaume, Children and Youth Pillar Lead at Samuel Hall, added:
“This study addresses a critical information gap, the first of its kind to provide a holistic and gender-specific understanding of experiences of girls migrating in, through, and to North Africa. Existing policies and programmes need to be adapted – working with these girls to develop targeted and gender-inclusive approaches, to make sure that the support they get actually addresses their needs.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Save the Children.