Survivors of domestic violence find a home in Al Dar

Sunday 12/02/2017
Lebanese women demonstrate against prostitution, sex slavery and violence against women in Beirut, on April 8th, 2016. (AFP)

Beirut - “If there were no shelter like that, I would have had no choice but to suffer until I died,” said 39-year-old Wafaa. For three months, Wafaa — not her real name — has been living at Al Dar, one of three emergency safe houses for women victims of gender-based-violence and their children run by ABAAD, a Lebanese-based non-governmen­tal organisation.

“I was constantly beaten and abused both physically and emo­tionally by my family, especially by my brothers, for a reason or no rea­son. I suffered insults, harsh lan­guage and financial deprivation,” Wafaa said. “Then I decided to put an end to this cycle of violence.”

It was thanks to a friend who had fled to Al Dar from an abusive husband that Wafaa knew about the centre, which shelters women of diverse nationalities and back­grounds in complete confidential­ity.

“Every time my friend saw the bruises on my body she would in­sist ‘Go to ABAAD. Go to ABAAD’,” Wafaa said. “I am happy that I took this step because I am getting to know myself and to discover that I can be useful and productive and that I am a normal human being, whereas in my family I was living on the margin. I was treated as a nobody. I had no life whatsoever.”

Jihane Isseid, emergency safe housing programme manager at ABAAD, explained that Al Dar of­fers emergency shelter to women and girls at risk and survivors of gender-based violence.

“We started in 2013 with three emergency safe shelters, in three different regions in the country (north, south and Bekaa) to be ac­cessible to all those who need us,” Isseid said. “It is the only centre that gives women the possibility of moving in with their children in­stead of leaving them behind. Our objective is to provide immediate safe housing on a temporary basis.

In Al Dar, we make sure that all women can have a safe shelter regardless of their nationalities, ethnicities or race. We have no dis­crimination in this regard whatso­ever.”

The need for safe shelters for women has increased in recent years. Conflict and violence sweep­ing the region have augmented the risks of violence against women, including sexual violence, accord­ing to the United Nations, which reported high rates of domestic violence, sexual harassment and early and forced marriages among Syrian women refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

“Definitely, conflicts contribute to the increase in [gender-based vi­olence] because of the psychologi­cal pressures and economic chal­lenges that drive people to become more aggressive and violent,” Is­seid said, arguing that violence in the region appears in many forms, including economic and social vio­lence, political violence and wars.

“We now hear about women’s trafficking and sexual slavery, cases of sexual abuse and exploi­tation, especially in war contexts where women and children are the most vulnerable,” she said.

“In Lebanon, we have economic and social pressures, which also lead to a rise in [gender-based vio­lence], in addition to the fact that measures and laws that ensure women’s rights and protection from violence are (almost) absent.”

Al Dar’s three centres have a to­tal capacity of 65 and are generally occupied year-round. At least half of the occupants are non-Leba­nese women, mostly Syrian refu­gees. While in Al Dar, survivors of gender-based violence are offered medical and psycho-social sup­port, counselling and legal help in addition to assistance offered their children by social workers, psy­chologists, education experts and nurses.

“When they first arrive at Al Dar, they only want to rest, to re­cover and to feel safe and secure. Afterward our teams check on their physical and mental health conditions. Their basic needs are immediately provided and clini­cal follow-up, especially for rape victims, is conducted,” Isseid said.

Assisting gender-based violence survivors in rebuilding their lives is another feature of the Al Dar programme. Learning and recrea­tional activities are offered as part of therapy and for the women to explore future options and priori­ties.

Wafaa, who has a degree in Ara­bic literature, said she hopes to find a job as an Arabic language teacher after she leaves Al Dar.

“I discovered that I can be useful if I had the chance, that I am not a failed person,” she said.

Wafaa added that she was will­ing to reconcile with her family but only after she had regained self-esteem and confidence. “I refuse to go back to what I was and I want to show that the ‘nobody’ could achieve something,” she said.

Since it was founded by Ghida Anani in 2011, ABAAD has advocat­ed for gender equality as an essen­tial condition to sustainable social and economic development in the Arab region.

It has set up a Centre for Men where men prone to committing acts of violence can receive free and confidential counselling.

“We give men a chance to speak out and share their grievances. We believe that in order to stamp out gender-based violence we should involve all parties. Fighting [it] is a very long course and should con­cern every person,” Isseid said.