Syria: Growing Pressure to Tackle Domestic Abuse

"Throughout her 25 years of marriage, Olfat, was regularly beaten and humiliated by her husband. Yet she never complained to anyone for fear of tarnishing her family’s reputation."
“I suffered a great deal of psychological and physical violence,” said Olfat, now a 49-year-old mother of four. Her husband was always accusing her of having relationships with other men as an excuse to hit her.
Following in the steps of other victims of domestic abuse, Olfat decided to put an end to her ordeal. She recently separated from her husband, after her children had all married and left home.

Although it was a taboo subject for a long time, violence against women is now being denounced in the Syrian media and other public forums as a reprehensible form of behaviour. In the past few years, the Syrian government has held several conferences designed to raise awareness about domestic violence. However, the current public outcry against the abuse of women is mainly the result of efforts by civil groups.

Over the last year, local associations have been running a number of projects to help women speak out about the aggression to which they are subjected. This new assertive stance against domestic violence is helped by the fact that social attitudes are changing.

“The fact that more women are educated, go to work and are financially independent empowers them to reject violence when it is inflicted on them,” said Rouba Hamoud, a Syrian lawyer and women’s rights advocate. A study conducted in 2006 by the Women’s Union, an umbrella organisation, indicated that one in four Syrian women suffered abuse of some kind, whether physical, verbal, psychological or legal. Other field studies suggest that only one out of every 250 cases of domestic violence is ever reported.

One successful initiative, launched by a group of Christian nuns in November 2007, is a free hotline which women can call if they suffer violence at the hands of their husbands, fathers or brothers.

The Trust Hotline, so far the only one of its kind, provides victims with practical advice on how to stand up to abusers, and informs them about their legal rights. As well as psychological and legal counseling, women may be offered a temporary refuge in extreme cases.

The service is run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and funded by donations to the Catholic Church in Syria. When it started, the hotline received 20 phone calls a month; the average number has now reached 230. “Our aim is to empower a woman to find the inner strength to help herself,” said Rahada Abdoush, one of six volunteers working on the hotline.

Abdoush said the women who call up are generally anxious at first, so the volunteers try to reassure them that all calls remain totally anonymous.

“At the end of each call, we tell the victim she can call us back any time and we’ll do our best to assist her,” she said. Abdoush sometimes refers victims to a psychologist or a social services adviser, and can even put them in touch with a lawyer who will handle divorce cases pro bono.

The Good Shepherd nuns also provide a shelter for abused women who have no family they feel they can turn to. At the five-room refuge in Damascus, the women receive psychological help and financial support until they become capable of facing life again. They can also learn a handicraft like knitting to help make them more independent. Hotline staff appear on Syrian television talk shows regularly to draw attention to their work. In the past year, several articles have been published in the press describing the assistance that abused women can get.

Domestic violence has become a widely-discussed issue in the Arab world, and satellite TV channels carried repeated slots designed to raise awareness of the issue last month, to mark the international day dedicated to combating violence against women.

In Syria, analysts say there is some way to go before the silence that still surrounds domestic violence is broken. They say that stronger government policies are needed, not just initiatives by non-government groups.

“Domestic violence is seen as a private matter in our society,” said Nihad Tuhmaz, a professor of sociology at the Baath University in Homs. “The idea of a hotline is new to our society, which doesn’t usually take new things on board easily.”

Tuhmaz said that most of the women who dared to use the hotline and talk about their problems are educated, and in any case many others, especially in rural areas, do not have access to this kind of help.

Umm Ammar, who is from a village near Homs, is still grieving for her daughter, who died recently after her husband hit her with a shovel. Her daughter remained in a coma in a hospital in Tartus for ten days before dying.. “She used to come to us in tears every time her husband beat her up badly,” said Um Ammar. “Once, her skin was badly bruised because her husband had tied her up with a thick rope.” The husband is now is custody.

The lack of laws that specifically address domestic violence remains an obstacle to change. Local human rights advocates have worked on designing a draft law to address this issue and lobby for the protection of abused women. The Syrian government has still not made any steps to endorse the law.

There is also growing pressure to change laws under which those convicted of so-called “honour crimes” against female family members they accuse of immorality get more lenient sentences than the standard penalties for criminal assault.

11 December 2008

Source: IWPR via WUNRN