Tiziana Dal Pra

Feminist and trainer


Starting from women's stories

The reception of and hospitality towards female refugees and asylum seekers has only involved a small number of feminist organizations, structures and anti-violence centres. But does it necessarily change the approach and the work?

Initially, the institutional chain brought asylum seekers to our centres, delegating us not only the administrative process but also the responsibility of a gender sensitive approach of the situation, as for Institutions, gender is never the central issue: these people are first and only asylum seekers. So, the actions that have long been undertaken were dealt in the frame of a gender-blind administrative process. Why? What has brought these women to Italy was a matter of low interest. At the beginning we were not sensitive to the differences, probably because ourselves have long been steeped in stereotypes about asylum seekers: refugee for political reasons, refugee escaping war or hunger, or other have always been identified by the collective unconscious as male asylum seeker. Indeed, the Convention of Geneva of 1951 defines in its first Article the refugee as the one who fears persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. “This legal construction was able to exclude for 50 years gender-based violence from the concept of persecution”: writes Ilaria Boiano - lawyer and women's rights activist (  www.ingenere.it.)

Only the 2011 Istanbul Convention (Art. 60) finally recognizes violence against women as a form of persecution and invites States to take a sensitive gender approach at all stages of the international protection process. This helped us tremendously, especially when we collected women's stories to send them to the territorial commissions. Family violence, forced marriages, mutilations, and selective abortion are some of the most widespread forms of gender-based violence and persecution. Their recognition has enriched our relationship with asylum seekers. We realized that what they had escaped from could no longer be ignored.

To ask for asylum as a woman, to ask for it in the name of a universal women human rights law… it was not an easy step.

The massive arrival of women who, for many of us were almost culturally and politically unknown, has suddenly confronted us with a concrete and dramatic situation and led us to firstly respond to primary needs. Then gradually, experiencing together the hospitality process, we understood that it was - or perhaps still is - necessary to apply a structural gender sensitive approach. We started to listen to what they had been through during the journey, then upon arrival, realizing that, for many of them, it was only the continuation of previous painful experiences, especially when women were coming from countries where their rights do not exist. The next difficult step was to work out together as if there really was "one destiny sealed". Is our idea and practice of rights understandable for these women?  What about the concept of “Feminist colonialism" that could think of building a female freedom out of relativistic logic?

As a feminist movement, we knew about the violation of bodies, ethnic rape, practices of personal annihilation, notably in the last Balkan wars. We had also seen (for example in Sarajevo) how religious fundamentalism regained space, thus power, in the most dramatic moments and how the highest price to pay by women was always the questioning or eliminating of their rights. This we knew. And we were confronted with political activists (Women in black in the Balkans, Rawa in Afghanistan and others) learning from them that you must always get your hands dirty, be on the field, get upset by the stories but don't be annihilated. On the contrary, we moved by searching and finding an energy, a capacity for struggle on an international scale.

To do this, it was necessary to trace the reasons for the escape of these women from their countries, by reviewing together with them every life as unique. Because it is not enough to have the "comparative tables" of the inequalities if that single woman does not live it this way; it is not enough to know that she did not go to school, ate less than her brother; it is not enough to know that she has not had access to health; it is not enough to know that she was forced to marry at a young age or that she suffered domestic, physical and violence. And yet it is not enough to know about the continuous sexual, social and workplace discrimination. It is not even enough to know that community control and social stigma for any disobedience will accompany these women throughout their lives. It is not enough because these women are not just victims. It is important that each of them chooses the name to give to each thing she escaped from. And only when she realizes that this is the chain of patriarchal control, she will find the form and strength to escape from it and not to impose it on her daughter.

Each of us should reflect on whether we simply want to "respect” the culture of the other or if we want to "share" a path based on universal gender rights. I believe women are still treated differently in the refugee or asylum reception centres than in anti-violence ones. This is due to the fact that we have not been able to transform experiences, reflections and training into one common set of knowledge and practices with all the women we welcome. Indeed, one of the key concepts of the fight against sexist violence is the non-victimization of women. If we don’t succeed in our practices to overcome the present difficulties, including our cultural heritage when we welcome them, we will risk. to forget it.

Tiziana Dal Pra