Fighting Back Against Sexual Assaults in Western Sahara

Hayat Erguibi. Photo courtesy of the Sahrawi Organization of Human Rights Defenders

Hayat Erguibi. Photo courtesy of the Sahrawi Organization of Human Rights Defenders

Many young women in Western Sahara are believed to have suffered sexual assaults and other abuses at the hands of Moroccan occupying forces and police, but Hayat Erguibi is different.  She refused to remain silent.

Given the stigmatism of rape or molestation within the conservative Islamic culture of the Western Saharans or Sahrawis, such humiliation at the hands of foreign occupiers prevents victims from stepping forward. It has also been charged that women are threatened by Moroccan forces if they dare to speak out.

Erguibi so dared.  On Feb. 24, she went to a local human rights organization a statement detailing accusations against Moroccan police of detaining, intimidating and sexually violating her on Feb. 22.   A Norwegian NGO later confirmed the story.

The Moroccan government, responding to the claim, fiercely denied the accusations to Reuters several days later.

But Erguibi didn’t stop there. She has allowed local Western Saharan rights groups to disseminate her photo and a video of her testimony was recently posted (with Spanish subtitles). In her testimony, she recalled that Moroccan police threatened to kill her if she publicized her attack.

Amnesty USA has long been concerned about Moroccan abuses in the part of Western Sahara under its control. Amnesty’s position with respect to the Western Saharan territorial dispute between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front is neutral.

The Difference Between Justice and Impunity is Action

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

I just got back from an amazing week in Chicago, and I was trying to decide whether I should use the above as the title for this post, or if I should call it “Solidarity Means Hope,” because those were really the two main themes of the past week.

I was there to take part in a series of events in support of the Women of Atenco, including a forum at DePaul University, a rally outside the Mexican consulate, and a meeting with the Consul General. The events, planned by Amnesty International in conjunction with a wonderful coalition of Chicago-area organizations, were a great success. The forum was well-attended by both general public and the media, the rally had over 200 people filling up the whole street outside the consulate and attracting the attention of everyone inside and outside the building, and the meeting with the Consul was a great opportunity to communicate powerfully and directly the intense need for real justice in this case.

With me and my colleagues throughout all of these events was Claudia Hernandez, one of the survivors of the sexual and physical assaults that occurred during the police crackdown on protests in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico, in May 2006. Claudia is an amazing woman, and everyone who met her this past week was blown away by her insight, energy, hope and strength. It was an intense week for her, being asked so many times to relive the trauma she suffered in Atenco, but she told me over and over again that what got her through it, and the message she is taking back to her sisters in the struggle for justice, is the knowledge that they are not alone. She saw with her own eyes that people here not only know about the women of Atenco, but are also 100% committed to ensuring that justice is done.

That commitment was clear in the numbers of people who turned out for the events, the numbers of letters and petitions they signed, and the thoughtful and passionate questions they asked about the best ways to continue to support the women in their fight for justice. Take it from me: the people of Chicago don’t just talk about human rights, they put words into action!