“I have been running all my life” – Women talk about sexual exploitation in Libya

“I have been running all my life” – Women talk about sexual exploitation in Libya

Contrary to popular opinion, we see many women making the journey despite the risks and horrors they endure along the way. Many remain silence for fear, shame and desperation about their situation and too often their suffering goes unheard.

Sexual exploitation remains the biggest threat to women fleeing through Libya today. Of the women rescued by the Aquarius, roughly one third report sexual assaults experienced in Libya, and this only includes those willing to talk about it.

The staggering number as well as the striking similarities in the descriptions of events, point to a systematic exploitation of women´s vulnerability in flight. Abisatou is from Gambia and 22 years old. After her parents died in the war, she lived with foster parents until they abandoned her at the age of 10. From that time on, she lived on the streets, trying to survive. When she was 19, she was kidnapped by a gang and heavily beaten. An older woman helped her to escape, but in exchange for her liberty forced her into prostitution. After several weeks, she managed to run away and met a group of people who wanted to leave Gambia for a better future elsewhere. With nowhere else to turn, she joined them. After the dangerous desert crossing, they finally arrived in Libya where she found work as a cleaner and was accommodated in a safe house, a common term for mass housing for migrants in Libya.  On a regular basis, Abisatou was raped by the armed man controlling the safe house.   Somehow, she managed to escape once more and made it to a boat: “I don’t know how I managed to get onto the boat. Maybe because I have been running all my life”.

Many others become victims of sexual violence once in Libya. The Asma Boys (a term frequently used to describe armed men in uniforms specifically targeting migrants in Libya), are often identified as the main aggressors: “I was at home when the Asma Boys came in, pointed their guns at my head and raped me. Afterwards they took all my money and left”, one woman from Nigeria recalls. “The worst thing is that you know they can come in any time”.

The Asma Boys are notorious for kidnapping anyone who dares to walk the streets in Libya. “I was in Libya for 4 months before I was kidnapped on the streets. Asma Boys put me into the trunk of their car and drove me to a house. There were already 40 other women, all kidnapped or trafficked to work as prostitutes. At first, I refused, so they locked me up in a room for a whole week. They tied my hands and beat me with wires. Everyday several armed men came in and raped me. I thought I was going to die there”.

“You are nothing to them. I was in prison for four months after the police arrested me as an illegal migrant” says 26 years old Serwa from Ghana. “They rape all the women. Nobody is save. If you are pregnant, they force you to have oral sex”. Like many women, Serwa became pregnant as a consequence of the rapes. “I can´t keep the baby. I just can´t”.

These are not isolated acts committed by single perpetrators taking advantage of the collapse of the Libyan state. Many women, mostly from Nigeria, were trafficked directly from their home country to be sold as prostitutes in Libya and Europe.  Human trafficking might be more visible in Libya, but the markets for prostitution and forced labor remain unimpressed by stricter border controls – a bitter irony considering the continuous lack of legal and safe ways for people fleeing prosecution, violence and poverty.


Text: Sarah Hammerl

Photo: Patrick Bar