Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Problem Shared

By Rachelle Kliger
The Media Line, NY - February 05, 2006

With a Hamas-dominated government on the horizon, many Palestinian women are concerned that an Ayatollah-style regime might emerge, crushing the rights for which they have been fighting for decades.

But Ohaila Shomar, who for years has helped Palestinian women deal with violence and sexual abuse, takes it in her stride.

"I just hope they will do what they said they would do throughout the election period, she says. "Until now their agenda is not clear."

Shomar is the managing director of Sawa - All the Women Together Today and Tomorrow, a rape crisis center that was established in 1998 to support victims of sexual abuse in the Palestinian territories.

The organization began under the auspices of the Israeli Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center (JRCC) in the west side of the city, but later broke away to go its separate way. Today, Sawa is an independent Palestinian NGO involved in prevention of sexual abuse and supporting victims.

At first glance, Sawa's headquarters resemble any other office complex, with its neatly organized files, stacks of educational pamphlets, a homely kitchenette and a large handwritten sign in Arabic addressing its volunteers.

But the exterior of the building, which is in an undisclosed location in eastern Jerusalem, deliberately bears no sign of what lies within.

The high ceilings in the small center reveal nothing of the abundant horror stories of rape, abuse, incest and humiliation which have been uttered here.

"Yesterday I had a call from a woman," Shomar recalls, "she had a problem with her husband. He raped both the daughter and the son." Shomar tried to persuade the anonymous caller to report her husband to the social welfare authorities and to the police so that the children can get therapy and not be further exposed to the abusive father.

The victimized children, she said later, were aged three and twelve. Shomar has still not heard back from the distressed caller.

The center has a permanent staff of four and more than 50 volunteers. It operates a hotline five days a week, with a view to extending its operating hours, and is also engaged in training courses, awareness campaigns, outreach programs and a unique pioneering sex education program in Palestinian schools.

Unlike the JRCC, which receives up to 40 percent of its funding from the Israeli government, Sawa relies on funds mainly from European representatives in the West Bank and on other contributions, including some individual donations.

An abundance of European flag stickers on much of the center's equipment and furniture attest to the initial funding the center received from the European Union.

The Palestinian Ministry of Women's Affairs, which was created in 2003, does not contribute to Sawa financially but the ministry is verbally supportive and has been helpful with exposure and raising awareness.

Although Sawa and the JRCC are now separate entities, they maintain cooperation to further their mutual goals. They run a joint training program for students at the Hebrew University and have a shared course in human rights, social change and violence against women, in which ten activists from each side study together every year.

In terms of the hotline, there is also a high level of cooperation between the two centers. "If the [west] Jerusalem center receives calls in Arabic, it sends them directly to here," said Sawa's Development Coordinator Jane Jacobs. Sawa will also provide the Israeli center with Arabic-speaking volunteers if they are needed to translate or to accompany a victim to a medical checkup or to the courts.

Also, Sawa draws from the vast experience of the Israeli JRCC, which was established in 1981. "The managements are in constant touch. Even though Sawa is very much part of the Palestinian national infrastructure, we've still got the same shared goals and it's important to keep that in mind when cooperating," Jacobs said.

The hotline is staffed exclusively by female volunteers and receives on average between 20 and 25 calls a month, a figure that is steadily rising due to increased awareness and advertising.

"In times of heightened tension or closures in the West Bank the hotline goes a bit quieter," Jacobs said, "presumably because the men, who are often the perpetrators, are in the houses and the women don't have a chance to call. As soon as the closures are lifted the hotline goes crazy. The security situation tends to dictate the pattern."

Advocates fighting violence against women talk about one in three women being sexually abused at least once in a lifetime in most parts of the world, and the assumption is the statistics in the Palestinian Authority are not much different.

But Shomar spoke of taboos in Palestinian society which often prevent women from speaking out. "I feel that many women have started to call us but they can't report this to the police and they don't want it to reach the court," she said.

As much as 75% of the incoming calls complain of sexual abuse within the family, Shomar said, while many other cases of sexual abuse go unreported.

In some cases, Shomar said, women fear their family or community will blame them for being abused by claiming the woman provoked it. Some fear violent retribution from members of their family in what has become known as 'honor killings.'

The prospect of being shunned by the community and accused of tainting the family reputation will often prevent women from calling. Also, Shomar pointed out a dire shortage of shelters for women in the Palestinian areas. There is currently only one such safe haven for abused women in the Palestinian territories - a discrete shelter in Nablus which accommodates up to ten women.

The red tape required to be accepted to this shelter can delay the girl's admittance for up to four days, meanwhile further exposing her to danger.

Unsupportive System
Inappropriate conduct by the enforcement authorities and a ridiculously antiquated legal system are also factors likely to discourage women from reporting sexual abuse.

The police are ill-equipped to deal with cases of violence against women and often, Shomar said, policemen respond to complaints according to their own experience and understanding of the situation and without any clear guidelines.

"Sometimes the police will say to a woman, 'Go back to your family. Aren't you ashamed that you came to the police to report about your husband?'" Shomar said.

Sawa has tried to change this attitude through workshops for the police forces, but Shomar admitted the impact was minimal, as the training needs to be much more intense.

Regarding the legal system, there is no law to protect women, and the system often works to the advantage of the offender. There have been attempts to change some laws, so far with little success.

Shomar also lamented the absence of social workers qualified to deal with cases of sexual abuse and a lack of psychologists who can offer help.

With sufficient funding and resources, Shomar hopes that Sawa will in the future be able to grant these services.

To contact Sawa, call +972 2 582 2211

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