Zeinab Eyega says social workers should avoid cultural stereotypes when dealing with African clients. Photo by Janet Sassi

The West’s perception of Africa as a violent and uncivilized continent leads to misunderstanding and mishandling of abused African women immigrants seeking social services, an advocate said at a symposium on March 3.

Zeinab Eyega is the executive director of the Bronx-based grassroots support organization Sauti Yetu, which means “Our Voice” in Swahili. She called on social workers to engage in a “dialogue of equal partnership” with their African clients rather than fall back on “cultural competency” instruction that can convey cultural stereotypes.

“In America, there is the perception that other cultures are more violent, and hence when an African immigrant comes here, we think we are saving this poor woman from her culture and her own society,” said Eyega, speaking at the Graduate School of Social Service’s (GSS) Fifth Annual Women’s Symposium at the Lincoln Center campus.

“Some of us who are activists are actually guilty of these negative notions,” she said. “We internalize them and they affect how we do our work.

“But when we do our due diligence without any nuance and without any great concern for who [people]are, we end up doing more harm than good.”

Eyega told the audience of students, faculty and professionals about a Gambian woman who was repeatedly assaulted by her husband, but refused police intervention. A social worker strongly encouraged the woman to go to a shelter and press charges, but she resisted and eventually faced losing her children.

Eyega got involved, and discovered why the woman was afraid to take action. Her husband was also her cousin, and any breach between the couple would cause a breach between two large factions of their family in Gambia.

Eyega negotiated a solution by involving the victim’s uncle in the outcome.

“For me to be able to serve a domestic violence victim, I need to know who she is,” she said. She urged social workers to “take responsibility to have a conversation” with clients, and to recognize that Africa is a culturally diverse continent.

A native of Southern Sudan who has been active in the United States for 16 years, Eyega said that even she faces being stereotyped. Recently, she said a woman at a conference referred to her headgear as a “costume.”

“She was wearing a pantsuit, so I replied, ‘I like your costume, too,’” said Eyega to laughter from the audience.

Last year, Sauti Yetu helped 165 women who spoke 57 African languages to successfully negotiate social services agencies in New York City. The tiny program focuses on support in three areas: domestic violence, young girls’ empowerment and policy and advocacy on behalf of victims of genital cutting.

In New York City, Africans are the fastest-growing immigrant population, according to a 2000 census. Sauti Yetu taps members of that burgeoning immigrant community for translation and other services, instead of relying solely on social service and law enforcement agencies.

“Many immigrants are scared of engaging the system,” Eyega said. “They don’t think the system sees them for who they are.

“We are not that big, but we have built a connection with the people in the community—not as people we want to save, but as our allies,” she said.

Also speaking were Fordham faculty members Leah Hill, associate clinical professor of law; Mary Ann Forgey, Ph.D., associate professor of social work; and Claudia Moreno, Ph.D., associate professor of social work.

Hill, a lawyer who worked for underrepresented women in family court, said that the current political climate, which is hostile to immigrants, has made it more difficult for women immigrants to seek help. Language and legal status barriers, she said, were always lingering in the background.

The symposium was sponsored by Fordham’s Institute for Women and Girls, whose mission is to promote the well-being of females affected by poverty, violence, health issues or job discrimination.


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]