Editor’s note: This conversation discusses the issue of rape.
Sarah Giles spent the past four months aboard a search and rescue boat in the Mediterranean. A physician with Doctors Without Borders, she has aided refugees — many of whom had left Libya, piled into unsafe and overcrowded boats looking for a better life in Europe.
More than 4,600 people have drowned or gone missing this year attempting to make the trip.
As part of her work, Giles has cared for women who were pregnant — some of whom had been raped. Sexual abuse has become such a problem for women making this journey that some are choosing to have long-term contraceptive implants put in their arm before they leave.
Giles spoke with NPR’s Scott Simon about the situation.
Tell us about these women.
I think the first thing everyone has to know — these are incredibly strong women. They are fleeing terrible circumstances, but by the time I had met them the things they had gone through defied my belief. I’m convinced that they’ll go on to be amazing additions to any country they go to that’s lucky enough to have them. Their experience defied belief.
Help us understand that — what did they tell you?
These women had all fled their home countries for very good reasons. Sometimes they were being persecuted for their political beliefs. But other times they told me their parents had died and that they had been sold into prostitution. I met a 14-year-old who had been forcibly married at the age of 12 and was fleeing continuous rape at home. So just the act of leaving their homes was a brave start.
They were smuggled across Africa, some of them walking across the Sahara. One woman told me she started in a group of four and she was the only one who had survived. They then had to travel through Libya. People who are smuggled through Libya are often kidnapped multiple times. So they’re kidnapped, sometimes tortured. They have to pay off their kidnappers somehow, sometimes that’s through forced prostitution, forced labor.