Tales of women at sea

“I am a mother. I am a woman. There are so many things that link us together.”

General - Tales of Women at Sea

Central Mediterranean 2022 © Mahka Eslami

Anyone crossing the sea to escape a dangerous situation, or to find a better life, is in a vulnerable position. But women face the additional burdens of gender discrimination and, all too often, gender-based violence, along their journeys.

On board the Geo Barents, the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescue ship in the central Mediterranean, female survivors regularly disclose practices such as forced marriage or genital mutilation (affecting either themselves or their daughters) as being among the reasons they were forced to leave their homes. Many women rescued also report having experienced various forms of violence, including psychological and sexual violence, as well as forced prostitution.

The experiences recounted by the four survivors below are sadly common among the women and men rescued by the Geo Barents

Kira - Tales of women
MSF midwife Kira (left) and psychologist Graziana (middle) speak with a migrant during a medical consultation. The woman, 20 years old, fled Eritrea and left her parents and siblings behind to escape an oppressive dictatorial regime and avoid military conscription. Central Mediterranean, 2023 © Nyancho Nwanri

Sarah, 25 years old, from Tigray, Ethiopia

When the violence in Tigray, Ethiopia, started two years ago and her town was bombed, Sarah was at work. She fled for her life to Sudan.

“I witnessed many people being killed during the assault. I simply ran. I did not have time to understand what was going on or to gather my belongings. My son was in town during the attack with the rest of my family. I could not even bring him with me. He is eight years old now and I have only spoken to him once in almost a year.

I know that some relatives are looking after him but there is not a day that goes by without me thinking of him. I worry about my son: I do not know how he is or what he is doing.

I went to Khartoum, in Sudan, to work and save some money to send to my child, but I was an illegal migrant in the country. I was afraid of being caught and imprisoned, as had happened to many others in my situation.

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Survivors on the Geo Barents, rotation 13

After a few months, a friend of mine helped me to go to Libya. I travelled with a group of people, but I did not know any of them. I was alone. We spent five days in the desert. After entering Libya, we were taken to a prison.

There were no men in uniform, but the wardens were heavily armed. They used to beat the men every day. There was not enough food for everyone. I was held captive for two months and was only released when I paid the ransom. I gave them the money I earned while working in Khartoum.

Then we were transferred to another place, where I was held captive for 10 months. They beat us but they kept us alive so they could extort money from us. Eventually I was let go because I could not pay another ransom. I arrived at the coast a few days later and boarded a rubber boat with many other people to cross the sea. It is the same boat in which you found me.”

General - Tales of women - onboard the Geo Barents
Female survivors (from left to right: Bintou, Decrichelle, and Salimatou) participate in an awareness-raising session on violence against women led by the MSF psychologist on board the rescue ship. Central Mediterranean, 2022 © Mahka Eslami

Bintou, 42 years old, from Ivory Coast

A mother of four, Bintou decided to leave her home when, following her husband’s death, her in-laws tried to take her children away from her and force her older daughter, Miriam, to get married. Taking her two older daughters with her, she headed for Libya, leaving her two younger children behind.

When they entered Libya, they were arrested and put in prison. “In Libya, because there is no government, everyone is a policeman. Even when they catch you, you do not know who the real police are... They caught us and put us in a small hut—men, women, all together. It was very hard. Some young men broke down the door and we ran away.”

Having escaped prison, Bintou and her daughters started working at a man's house, even though he did not pay them. He knew they wanted to cross the sea. One day, he took them to a boat waiting on the shore. It was their first attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

A mother and daughter embrace aboard MSF's migrant search and rescue ship Geo Barents in the Mediterranean.
Bintou and Mariam, a mother and daughter from Ivory Coast, aboard MSF’s Geo Barents rescue ship.
2022 © Mahka Eslami/MSF

Bintou has not seen her two youngest children in the two years since she left Ivory Coast.

“I would like my children to grow up to be somebody. When I was a child, I experienced a lot of bad things. My mother was blind. She had 15 children but only three survived. I was the only girl. I was forced into marriage. I did not go to school. I want to send my children to school. I do not want my children to be forced into marriage like I was. I don’t want my girls to have a life like mine.”

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Christelle, 36 years old, from Cameroon

A mother of three, Christelle left her violent husband and found herself a job with a small business selling plantains. One day, on the way to work between Maroua and Kousséri, in north Cameroon, she was kidnapped by Boko Haram militants who took her across the border to Nigeria. Helped by a woman she met, she managed to escape and make her way to the city of Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria, where she stayed with another woman and found work in a restaurant.

After six months, she saved enough money to leave with a group of others for Libya. Crossing from Algeria to Libya, she was the victim of sexual violence. When she reached Libya, she was taken straight to prison.

General - Tales of women - onboard the Geo Barents - Rotation 20
Rescued women rest on board the Geo Barents. Central Mediterranean, 2022 © Mahka Eslami

“At the Libyan border, during the night, the people who were guiding us raped us. We were also shot at. We scattered, we got lost and we found ourselves with two children who did not speak French, without their mothers, who had disappeared… We spent three days looking for their mothers before leaving the children on their own. Who can take care of unknown children? The trauma of Libya began as soon as we entered the country.”

Decrichelle, 32 years old, from Cameroon

A mother of two, Decrichelle was forced into marriage after her first husband died in a car accident. The family forced her to marry her husband’s brother, a man who drank heavily and beat her. She had two miscarriages as a result of this violence. She became pregnant a third time and gave birth to a girl. When the child was six months old, her husband beat her so badly that she ended up in the hospital. 

Soon after, she fled her home with her baby and, with the encouragement of a friend, decided to leave for Nigeria, and then travelled on to Niger and Algeria. In the desert on the way to Algeria, her daughter fell ill, but without medicines or medical care, she died. Decrichelle had to leave her daughter’s body in the desert and continue with the group towards Algeria. She recalls feeling “an immense and inconsolable sadness.”

Decrichelle - Tales of women At Sea - onboard the Geo Barents
A woman braids the hair of her friend, with whom she made the journey from Libya. The two women are staying on board the Geo Barents along with other women and children who have been rescued. Central Mediterranean, 2022 © Mahka Eslami

The first time Decrichelle tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea, she was arrested and sent to prison. She was released almost immediately and put in a cab to a brothel where she was expected to work as a prostitute. A couple of Cameroonian friends helped her escape.

For six months, she lived in the campos—the empty buildings or outdoor spaces near the sea where traffickers gather migrants—before raising enough money to attempt a second crossing.

“I want to be in a place where I can live like a normal person. I’ve had too much suffering, too much stress. I want to be able to sleep at night. I wanted to be with my child. It hurts me to think that I am safe but I had to leave her in the desert.”

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Lucia, MSF deputy coordinator onboard the Geo Barents

Beyond the difficulties women face on migration routes and in Libya, MSF teams on board the Geo Barents often witness the strong bonds that develop between survivors on the women's deck. The women come together to support one another with daily tasks and childcare.

“I want to tell women: it is not your fault. You are exactly the same person as you were before. You are even stronger,” said Lucia, deputy project coordinator aboard the Geo Barents, who has herself experienced rape. “I think it has been really moving to see these women, who actually escaped what I experienced for an hour of my life, and in their struggle, their strength and their hope, [they do not stop] this fight.”

Ahmed, 28 years old, born in Sudan to Eritrean parents

Meanwhile, when male survivors are asked about the people they left behind or the reasons for their journey, a woman is always mentioned in their stories. Ahmed, 28 years old, was born in Sudan to Eritrean parents who moved to escape war. Having lived all his life as a refugee, Ahmed never felt that he belonged in Sudan. He wished to leave, but as an undocumented person, unable to return to Eritrea for fear of military conscription and an oppressive dictatorial regime, he decided to travel to Libya and cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Ahmed - Tales of women
Ahmed, a Sudan-born Eritrean man, celebrates with a fellow survivor on the Geo Barents after being rescued on January 6. For many survivors, the time right after the rescue is an important moment for rest, or for celebration. Central Mediterranean 2023 © Nyancho Nwanri

Nejma, MSF cultural mediator on the Geo Barents 

Nejma, an MSF cultural mediator on board the Geo Barents, explains her bond with survivors like Decrichelle and Ahmed: “I am African and I am Middle Eastern. I am a mother. I am a woman. There are so many things that link us together. Maybe also the fact that I had to flee. That is a big part of it. I think it helps me understand where people are at the moment we find them; it is an understanding that books could never teach me.”

Nejma - Tales of women
Nejma, MSF cultural mediator, speaks with a patient aboard MSF's search and rescue vessel Geo Barents in the Mediterranean Sea.

Cultural mediator Nejma talks with survivors onboard the Geo Barents. Central Mediterranean, 2023 © Nyancho Nwanri

As a refugee herself, Nejma explained what helped her to move forward after being displaced from her home. “[Survivors need to] keep the strength... once they disembark in Europe, it is not the end of the journey,” she said.

“It is a different challenge: to not let go of who they are, to never forget who they are, where they are from. To be very proud of their origins. Because you will not know where to go if you do not know where you came from. And I want my brothers and sisters from Africa and the Middle East, or anywhere, to remember who they are. It will make it easier to move forward.”

Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean

MSF has been running search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean since 2015, working on eight different search and rescue vessels, alone or in partnership with other NGOs. Since 2015, MSF teams have provided lifesaving assistance to more than 85,000 people in distress at sea. MSF relaunched search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean in May 2021, chartering its own ship, the Geo Barents, to rescue people in distress, to provide emergency medical care to rescued people, and to amplify the voices of survivors of the world’s deadliest sea crossing. Since May 2021, the MSF team on board the Geo Barents has rescued 6,194 people, recovered the bodies of 11 people and assisted in the delivery of one baby.