Photo Essay: The Women of the World’s Most Backbreaking Border


13 August 2017 |   | Narratively

As the sun rises over the chaotic borderland where Morocco flirts with Spain, hundreds of women report for an unthinkable daily grind.

Gallery Slideshow

“If Safia Azizi hadn’t been queuing at 7:20 a.m. by the narrow blue turnstiles along the border between Morocco and the Spanish town of Melilla, it might not have happened.

But she was. And this is usually the time of day when the Moroccan police open the barrier to the hundreds of women, most of them elderly, who cross from Morocco into Melilla, a Spanish-administered city along the coast of Morocco, to load their cargo.

Three female porters in Melilla, Spain, await the arrival of trucks with merchandise before crossing the border.

“It looks as if they were going into the slaughterhouse!” Safia’s brother said the next day after taking a look at the turnstiles.

If she had not been there at that time on that morning, maybe today she would be crossing the border again, running to the storehouses and loading up to 175 pounds of goods on her back. Then she would race back to Morocco, deliver her cargo to the trader who hired her and line up to cross again through the blue turnstiles and load up again in the Spanish storehouses.

But Safia will not do it any more because she was there that morning at 7:20 a.m. She was ready for a hard day’s work, with her djellaba, or Islamic dress, the only protection against the sharp cold of dawn and her hijab, or headscarf, perfectly arranged. “I never saw a single hair of her head,” her friend Dunia later recalled tearfully.

If Safia had not been pushed to the ground by the stampede, she would have earned fifteen euros that day for three trips back and forth across the border. She knew very well that the more trips she could make each day, the more money she would earn. But she could not avoid falling to the ground. The chaos on the Moroccan side of the border was a breeding ground for this uncontrollable force, the onrush of desperate women who ran her over.

Shaima, a porter in Melilla.

Safia, forty-one, was a graduate in Arabic literature from the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, her hometown, something unusual among the women working as porters. Like other unemployed graduates, she had left her hometown in search of a job. Someone told her that the border was an easy place to make money, so she registered as a resident in Nador, the last town in Morocco before the border, because only locals can cross to the Spanish side without a passport. Working as a porter demanded a huge physical effort, but she could earn enough money to make a living.

Who knows? If Safia had not been crushed to death she might have later found a professional job in her field. That November morning a policeman on the Spanish side of the border saw the stampede and tried to help the injured. By the time he got there, under an iron grey sky, he found a jumble of women and large packages on the ground, scattered by the force of the crowd. He had to shoot into the air to get through. But it was all in vain; the harm was done. The coroner’s autopsy confirmed that Safia died due to “a pulmonary hemorrhage caused by a violent chest compression.”

According to the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, more than 6,400 people die each day worldwide from work-related accidents and diseases. That’s 2.34 million people per year. Actual figures may be even higher, because reporting systems are inadequate in many countries.

The risks faced by men in the workplace are better-known because, so far, the movement of safety and health at work has largely focused on male-dominated jobs. But today, women make up more than forty percent of the global workforce and many of them are working in the informal economy, where they frequently face unsafe working conditions, with low or irregular incomes and high job insecurity.

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