Survivors of domestic violence find a home in Al Dar
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.