The Forgotten Minority: A Personal Story Sheds Light on the Added Dangers Facing Migrant Girls and Women

Maryama* is just 17 years old, but already she has attempted to migrate from Hargeisa in the Horn of Africa to Europe twice. While most migrants face harrowing journeys, her story can help us understand some of the additional challenges facing young women and girls on the move in the Horn of Africa. She was interviewed as part of a broader study on the situation of children on the move in the Horn of Africa carried out by the Innocenti Office of Research.


The forgotten minority

Conversations about migration are often focused on young men. To a certain extent, this focus is understandable. Although statistics on those who begin the journey are difficult to obtain, we do know that those who arrive in Europe are predominantly male, between 67-73% according to the Pew Research Center. But women are also on the move in significant numbers and their experiences both mirror and differ from those of their male counterparts.


In search of a better life

The first time Maryama left home, she was 13 years old. At the time, she didn’t have a “clear vision on how and why. The only thing that I knew was that I wanted to go to Germany because I heard that those who immigrate get money and a better life.” Maryama’s focus on finding a better life is shared by the majority of young people who participated in this research. For them, a better life means a better job and enhanced educational opportunities.

As Maryama says, “I did not go to school… My family never treated the girls and boys of the family equally, they always gave priority to my brothers, whether to send them to school or other things.” Other young women interviewed for this study echoed this sentiment, stating that boys are always given priority in their families.  Women in northern Somalia generally have lower levels of education and experience higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts. For example, 30% of the girls that we interviewed had no education, compared to 12% of boys. In this context, it is unsurprising that lack of education drives young women to migrate.

There are also reasons for leaving that affect women in particular. Maryama left home a second time at 14 years old to avoid being forced into marriage. In her words: “my family was forcing me to marry an old man. I didn’t even know him, and I didn’t want him, so I decided to leave the country any way I could.” While the search for jobs and education are often then most common reasons for leaving, some girls also cited physical abuse within their families as a driver.


Maryama’s first journey

Once she decided to migrate, Maryama looked for a smuggler to assist her. “I told some friends whom I knew could get information and contacts because they had friends who had immigrated before. Then a few days later, they told me I had contact and I should get ready.” Like many young people interviewed, however, Maryama did not have the funds to travel. She stole some gold earrings and sold them to finance the first part of the trip. The costs at this first stage tend to be small, so selling possessions or stealing small items is a common way to get started.

Maryama got as far as Bosaso in north-eastern Somalia before her father and brothers found her as she was waiting for a boat to take her on to Yemen. “When I got up, I found my father and my brother in the house. I have no idea who told them where I was.” They took her home. “It was shocking, of course, but there was no choice but to go back with them.”

I am also afraid my brothers may kill me if they hear that I tried to migrate again.

Her story is similar to those of many other young migrants who are stopped mid-journey by relatives. This helps explain why many young people plan their journeys and leave surreptitiously. Most rightly assume that their parents would oppose their decisions and seek to prevent them from leaving if they knew. Many young migrants, both male and female, reported that they were scared of their parents’ reactions to their migration and that this discouraged them from reaching out for help. Young women, however, sometimes expressed fear of violence, not just anger and disappointment. In Maryama’s words, “My father didn’t threaten me. He was so happy to see me alive, but my brothers did threaten and even beat me… I am also afraid my brothers may kill me if they hear that I tried to migrate again.” Maryama, like other young woman who seek to leave, also faced stigma in a culture that expects women to stay at home and which can interpret their movement itself as an abandonment of virtue.


A perilous route

The second time she left, Maryama once again found a smuggler through friends, but this time she got much farther, as far as Libya, but faced many more difficulties. The night she left, she says, “my life changed because I started to realize what it meant to be abused, hungry, and thirsty.” She took a bus from Hargeisa to Wajaale and then on to Jigjiga in Ethiopia. Here she was held by smugglers for 18 days before they gathered a large enough group to continue to Addis. She stayed in Addis for another ten days. During this time, she says, “we did not have enough to eat or drink and all the men and women slept together in a hall.”

From Addis, the group moved on to Sudan. On the way, she faced a danger to which young women are particularly vulnerable – sexual violence. “To reach Sudan we walked for hours in very scary places for five days. We met some guys and they raped some of us. Me, fortunately I wasn’t because I was the youngest and shortest one and I pretended to be married to one of the other migrants I was travelling with.”

The situation further deteriorated in Libya, where smugglers demanded ransom from her: “Smugglers asked us to pay US$7,000-$10,000. They tortured us whenever money was delayed and my family couldn’t avoid paying all this money. Smugglers tortured me, abused me and did whatever they wanted.” Eventually she was approached by an NGO that offered to assist her to return.


A new beginning

I called my family, but they wouldn’t believe me and told me. ‘you are not our daughter because our daughter is in Libya,’ and cut the call…. When I came home everyone was shocked because they thought I would never reach them alive.

She returned by road and when she finally arrived back her family greeted her with disbelief, “I called my family, but they wouldn’t believe me and told me. ‘you are not our daughter because our daughter is in Libya,’ and cut the call…. When I came home everyone was shocked because they thought I would never reach them alive.”

Maryama is currently being assisted by the General Assistance and Volunteer Organization (GAVO), which is supported by UNICEF, to learn tailoring and improve her livelihood prospects for the future. “My plan in the future is to be a tailor and stylist in the country and produce a very unique product. Good hope came to my life and I’m very happy for it.”

Maryama hopes that she can get support to start her own business when she finishes the course. She wishes that others like her can be assisted through initiatives for youth businesses, education, and vocational training. Such efforts can contribute significantly to reintegrating individuals, like Maryama, who are struggling to build a new life for themselves at home. Lives that they might not even have imagined possible before they left.


Maryama’s story is one of many encountered in Innocenti’s research on the situation of children on the move in the Horn of Africa. The results of the first phase of this research were published in July 2019 as “No Mother Wants her Child to Migrate: Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa.” Additional publications are forthcoming.


* Name changed to protect the privacy of the individual.


Olivia Bueno is the lead researcher and author of ‘No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate: Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa’. She has been working on migration and human rights issues in the Horn and Great Lakes regions of Africa for the last fifteen years. She has consulted with a number of organizations in the region, including local women’s and human rights organizations. She is also a co-founder of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, a non-governmental organization based in Kampala and conducting research and advocacy on both the causes and consequences of displacement. She has a Masters degree in International Affairs from the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.