Abused Palestinian Women Face More Than Just Violence

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank – In an unassuming gated building on a sun-bleached hill on the outskirts of Bethlehem sits one of three shelters in the West Bank that support the estimated 375,000 women who are survivors of domestic violence.

“There are a lot (of stories). I don’t know where to start,” said Maysoon Ramadan, director of the Mehwar Center for the Protection and Empowerment of Families. Shaking her head, she lit her third cigarette in an hour and sighed.

Abused women must overcome stigmas when speaking out about violence, seeking help at a shelter, and re-integrating into their communities

Abused women must overcome stigmas when speaking out about violence, seeking help at a shelter, and re-integrating into their communities

Ramadan has worked in the field of women’s rights since 1998 and for the Mehwar Center since 2000. Her experience seems to show in her deep-set features, weighty voice and empathetic eyes.

Taking another drag on her cigarette, she began to share a story of a young woman who arrived at the shelter a couple years ago.

Only 19, the girl had been sexually abused by her father since she was 11.

“She said she didn’t realize what was going on,” said Ramadan. “He convinced her it was a normal relation between fathers and daughters.”

Only after her father refused to let her marry the man she loved did the young woman realize she was being lied to and abused.

To spite her father, she tried to commit suicide and then succeeded in running away. She was found and brought to Mehwar by the police.

“It was a very, very difficult case,” said Ramadan. “Every time she opened the experience, she collapsed. She didn’t sleep well or eat well. She used to have nightmares that her father was choking her and wake up screaming.”

Maysoon Ramadan, director of Mehwar, has stood in solidarity with abused women for 15 years. Behind her is a portrait of a women in the shelter as photographed by another resident in a 2012 UN Women's empowerment project.

Maysoon Ramadan, director of Mehwar, has stood in solidarity with abused women for 15 years. Behind her is a portrait of a women in the shelter as photographed by another resident in a 2012 UN Women’s empowerment project.

The young woman stayed at the shelter for a year before returning to her mother’s home. Ramadan said she is 21 or 22 years old now and married.

“I am sure that things are not well,” Ramadan said, a flicker of tears showing in her eyes. “But she’s trying to live.”

Shelters alone are not enough

The Mehwar Center, founded in 2007 by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Social Affairs, currently houses 15 women and four children. In the past six months, Mehwar and its counterpart shelters in Nablus and Jericho have taken on 70 cases of women in need.

Women who come to shelters like Mehwar aren’t just seeking physical protection. They’re also escaping societal stigmas that keep a majority of victims silent about abuse, and makes some reluctant to even accept help from such shelters.

An estimated 37.5 percent of women in the West Bank are subjected to some form of domestic violence, according to a Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics report from December 2011.

The most common form of abuse is psychological, but the scope of abuse includes economic, social, physical and sexual, including marital rape and incest.

Violence against women in the West Bank, under-documented and under-reported, stems from a complex web of legal, social and cultural causes that activists are trying to address. Although non-profit and government leaders agree there aren’t enough shelters to meet the needs of abused women, they said that just opening more centers wouldn’t solve the core issues.

“In the end, we don’t want the whole West Bank to be filled with shelters so that all women are in them,” said Kawther Al-Mughrabi, the director of Ministry of Social Affairs office in Ramallah.

“I would like to see the woman in her house in a peaceful environment and to see the violent man put in jail,” said Al-Mughrabi. “What we want is a defensive law for women, but since there are no laws, we have to protect these women and put them in shelters.”

Shamed into silence

Mehwar and other non-profit organizations like SAWA and the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling are not only sheltering women but also seeking to change a traditional patriarchy that perpetuates violence against women.

“All through my life I noticed that there is something not equal between men and women,” said Ramadan.

“In general, women have a very low status in society. When we talk about women as victims of violence, they (men) don’t understand they are victims, they think they are women (violating) tradition who need to be punished.”

The societal stigma that blames abused women for bringing dishonor to their families keeps many victims silent about abuse.

Mehwar Center, one of only three shelters in the West Bank for survivors of violence, currently provides safety and restoration to fourteen women and four children.

Mehwar Center, one of only three shelters in the West Bank for survivors of violence, currently provides safety and restoration to 14 women and four children.

Of women subjected to domestic violence in the West Bank in 2011, 30 percent escaped to the home of another family member, 60 percent remained silent, and less than 1 percent sought aid at a shelter, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey.

The reasons for a woman to remain silent range from fears of losing children or economic support to physical threats by her abuser. All, though, stem from the stress of societal stigmas.

“In general, women should keep silent about violence,” Ramadan said, explaining the pressure to not talk about abuse.

“It’s a secret, private issue. If they talk about it among themselves, they say, “You should be patient, he will change.’ Most believe he will be better. This is why they don’t speak.”

Like abused women, activists have also faced pressure from the community to remain silent. Ohail Shomar, the director of SAWA in Ramallah since 2004, has experienced backlash for her work.

“When we started to talk about violence against women, there was a lot of unwillingness, because they wanted to defend the family,” said Shomar. “They want to protect society so they’re ignoring what’s happening.”

Women and activists not only face shame in their communities for speaking up about violence, but even more so for seeking help from a shelter like Mehwar.

“They’re afraid to come here because the community says that this place is for women who are bad,” said Ramadan. “Women don’t come here because of that stigma.”

A sheltered life

For many abused women, coming to a shelter like Mehwar is a last resort.

When a woman reports violence at a local police station anywhere in the West Bank, she is transferred within 24 hours to the emergency shelter in Jericho. If her situation is extreme or life-threatening, she is then moved to Mehwar or the other long-term shelter in Nablus.

Life in a shelter for women estranged from their communities and in need of psychological help is difficult.

“It’s not a happy place here,” Ramadan said.

“What I mean by that is that even though we are protecting her from violence, that doesn’t mean she is having her own life. She didn’t choose to live here. This is her only choice to come here to be safe,” she said.

Women stay at Mehwar for anywhere from a few days to a year, although there have been a couple extreme cases of women staying for over two years.

Outside Ramadan’s office, Amina El-Hilo, the director of the residential portion of Mehwar, explained what life in a shelter is like.

Women live two in one room, except when space is tight in all shelters and three fit in one room. Supervised by social workers, the women are responsible for running the shelter.

While there, residents have the opportunity to receive training to work outside the shelter or to continue their education. Many girls don’t finish high school and some are forced into marriage as early as age 16.

As she led the way through Mehwar’s cool, tiled corridors, El-Hilo showed off the center’s facilities: a gym, library, counseling center, computer lab, art studio, and sitting room where every morning the women gather to have a “good morning talk.”

“We learn to talk about conflict because when they come here, most have no tools of expressing themselves in a healthy way,” said El-Hilo, a woman with a soft voice and gentle eyes. “It’s not easy to build bridges of trust.”

Inside the residential section of the shelter, an inner courtyard was flooded with sunlight and green flowering leaves. El-Hilo introduced one of the two women standing near the door as the caretaker of the garden. When her work was praised, she flushed with pleasure and then disappeared upstairs.

She returned a few moments later cradling a wrapped bundle – 15-day-old baby Mohammed, the son of her roommate. Tucking him in, she jiggled her arm and began to sing in a soft voice, continuing as the door closed behind her.

According to Al-Mughrabi, the hardest part for women is not coming to the shelter, but leaving it to reintegrate back into society. Some women are able to return to their families while others are completely rejected.

Re-integration is difficult, but it’s not impossible, and it’s one sign of hope that activists hold on to.

Change, small and slow

Although the situation of violence against women in the West Bank is a serious one, activists attest to incremental but hopeful changes. Over the past few years, the region has seen increased awareness for and better legislation to combat violence against women.

In particular, the creation of a special Family Protection Unit in the Palestinian police force in 2007 to aid victims of domestic abuse has been a force of positive change.

“Fifteen years ago they didn’t trust the police, but now women go to ask help and protection,” Ramadan said. “The implementation of these institutions has proven that the police and the government are taking responsibility and considering violence against women as one of their priorities.”

Activists attest that change, small but slow, is happening. But it’s not yet enough, they said, to counteract the harrowing situation faced by many women who are victims of violence in the West Bank. Nor does it erase the continued need for more shelters like Mehwar.

Because of this, Ramadan sees her and others’ work as vital to the protection and empowerment of women.

“Work by NGOs and formal institutions in the community have contributed in changing the mentality and attitudes of the people,” she said. “If it fails, we are killing the option of protecting and having rights for women.”

She doesn’t lose hope, though, in the power of change: “When women come, they’re victims. But when they leave, they’re survivors.”

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