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Gender Dynamics and Women's Changing Roles in Johannesburg's Somali Community

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Somali refugees arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa following apartheid's official end in 1994. They have since established a well-organized community in Mayfair, a suburb just west of the city centre, which continues to grow as Somalis migrate to the country in search of peace, security, and livelihood opportunities. Life in South Africa pushes women to adopt new roles and challenge customary gender models while maintaining their household management responsibilities. Several variables shape gender dynamics and contribute to gender negotiations in Mayfair. Shifting family and household structures influence women's changing roles and complicate gender relations as more women, single and married, participate in economic activities and manage their homes and families with limited male support. Customary socio-cultural constructs largely confine women's roles to those performed in the household, but displacement and settlement processes challenge these models and push women into new roles, often with contradictory outcomes. These cultural elements are further complicated by larger South African contexts. Rampant discrimination, abuse, and xenophobic violence against migrants—and Somalis in particular—at the hands of South Africans, law enforcement officers, and state institutions charged with protecting and assisting migrants, invoke fear among Somalis. They increase women's vulnerability, and limit their opportunities as they scrape by with few economic resources. The paradox of women assuming new roles as they are simultaneously limited by the realities of living in South Africa poses important questions about how these contradictions affect gender relations. This article argues that these social and institutional structures are collectively significant to understanding how these complex processes shape refugees' lives and women's roles. It also demonstrates the importance of examining gender relationships within their specific contexts to determine how and why women's roles change and what those differences mean in refugee settlement communities.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2013

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  • The St Antony's International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony's College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.
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