Foto: Simon Læssøe

More crisis centres opening in the Middle East and North Africa

New legislation and an upsurge in public debate has given momentum to more crisis centres for vulnerable women in the Middle East and North Africa. There is still, however, the need for a huge effort.

“The work in setting up crisis centres has momentum,” says Marie Diernisse Langsted, a consultant at Danner – a Danish NGO – and project manager on a Danner project under the Danish–Arab Partnership Programme.

“This especially applies to Tunisia. Violence against women has been recognised here as a societal problem, and efforts are now being made on the part of government. New organisations are also constantly popping up and starting to take an active role in the work,” says Marie Diernisse Langsted.

Danner has offices in Tunis, and in addition to the work there it is responsible for a regional teaching programme.

Breakthrough in Tunisia

The big breakthrough for Tunisia came in 2017 with the adoption of a new law that criminalises six types of violence against women, including rape of a spouse. Simply the recognition that rape can be committed by a spouse is a minor revolution. No other countries in the region have taken this step.

It runs deep in Middle Eastern society and culture that the husband has the right to sex and that the wife is obliged to comply with the husband’s demands. The same goes for the belief that “strangers” have no right to interfere in what goes on within the four walls of the home.

“In the past, the police and public authorities did not take vulnerable women seriously. Now they have a duty to help the women. It also means that there are more women that report violence, so this is a positive change”

Hajer el-Kefi
Psychologist at LTDH and instructor at Danner

“The law is also revolutionary because it obliges the government to protect vulnerable women from violence,” says Hajer el-Kefi over the phone from Tunis.

Hajer el-Kefi is a psychologist. She is involved in the Tunisian human rights organisation Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme (LTDH) and works as an instructor on the Danner regional teaching programme.

“In the past, the police and public authorities did not take vulnerable women seriously. Now they have a duty to help the women, and they know how to handle the cases and where to send the women. This also means that there are more women that report violence, so this is a positive change,” Hajer el-Kefi points out.

The law came into force in February 2018, and for Hajer el-Kefi it is a crowning accomplishment:

“It is the result of many years of hard work and pressure from Tunisian women’s and human rights organisations,” she says.

Since 2016, seven crisis centres have opened in Tunisia. Photo: Simon Læssøe.

The first shelter/crisis centre for vulnerable women was opened in Tunis in 2016 and operated by Danner’s partner, L’Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche sur le Développement (AFTURD).

The Ministry of Women, Family and Children in Tunisia has since opened six crisis centres and is scheduled to open an additional three centres in 2019. Four advisory centres have also been set up, as well as a hotline. According to the ministry, the hotline received 5–6,000 calls during the first 10 months of 2018.

UN supports the setting up of crisis centres

There are no exact numbers for the number of crisis centres for vulnerable women in MENA, but Fatima Outaleb estimates that there are 50–60 in total throughout the Arabic-speaking part of the region.

Fatima Outaleb is a member of the board for the Global Network of Women Shelters and has recently participated in a meeting of the ESCWA (the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia). Here, the first draft of a regional report on violence against women and the crisis centres was discussed.

One of many crisis centres established in Tunisia since 2016. Photo: Simon Læssøe.

One of the conclusions was that the numbers were not well-documented. Another conclusion was that UN organisations are increasingly taking on the financing of crisis centres in the MENA region.

“It has become a more recognised approach to protecting women against violence. In connection with the Syrian refugee crisis, the need was obvious because there were so many Syrian women who were exposed to violence in the refugee camps,” says Fatima Outaleb over the phone from Rabat.

“The UN organisations have not generally wanted to spend money on crisis centres unless they could see that it leads to results and could show the results of their efforts to the donors. Until now there have been many donors who would not fund crisis centres, because it did not give them visibility. So [the funding] is a positive development, and it will benefit our work,” says Fatima Outaleb.

More than walls and ceilings

Fatima Outaleb herself has been managing a crisis centre in Morocco’s capital Rabat since the centre opened in 2002. She sees a very slow – but positive – trend in Morocco, where there are currently 16–17 crisis centres:

“People have accepted crisis centres as part of the work to help women who are at risk of violence,” says Fatima Outaleb.

Until 2013, the crisis centres were, in principle, illegal. In a formal sense, they were hiding women from their husbands, which was illegal. With a change to the legislation, this prohibition has been repealed.

“It was a big step forward because our work then became legal,” says Fatima Outaleb.

“Crisis centres are so much more than the walls and ceilings. They strengthen women and rehabilitate them to look after themselves. They are a huge force for change, and it is this perspective we would like to stress. We need to talk less about women as victims and more about women’s potential.”

Fatima Outaleb
Head of a crisis centre in Morocco

All the Moroccan crisis centres are run by NGOs. And for Fatima Outaleb, it is a huge success in itself that her shelter still exists. Many others have succumbed and have closed, mostly due to lack of funding. The biggest challenge is to get government involved:

“Violence against women is generally not considered to be a criminal offence, and the legislation is totally inadequate. Women may not seek help from the police, and the government does not help out financially,” says Fatima Outaleb.

However, Fatima Outaleb is still optimistic. This is partly because a professionalisation of the work in the crisis centres is taking place:

“Crisis centres are so much more than the walls and ceilings. They strengthen women and rehabilitate them to look after themselves. They are a huge force for change, and it is this perspective we would like to stress. We need to talk less about women as victims and more about women’s potential,” Fatima Outaleb states.

The overarching purpose of the NGO group Danner’s work in Tunisia and in the region is precisely this: a professionalisation of the work of the centres. This applies to the cooperation between government agencies and NGO’s, the staff’s daily work, the exchange of experience between the centres, and the documentation of their efforts.

Just recently, Danner published a manual for the trainers who teach employees at crisis centres.

Capacity for change

An important goal is to teach those involved how to use the so-called ‘human rights-based’ approach to the work that the Danner organisation stands for. This means that its starting point is that women have the right to not be subjected to violence and that the authorities have a duty to protect and help women.

In the daily work at the crisis centre, this means that a woman who has been exposed to violence is not considered a victim, a ‘case’, or a client, but rather a survivor:

“As a member of staff, you have to believe that women have the capacity and skills to create positive change in their life situation. There are also many success stories,” says the Lebanese psychologist Amal Farhat.

Women in crisis centres are taught many different skills to enable them later in life. Photo: Simon Læssøe.

Amal Farhat is part of Danner’s training programme and has contributed to the new manual. She manages a crisis centre for children who have been sexually abused on a daily basis, and she is a consultant to the Lebanese knowledge centre ABAAD. ABBAD operates three crisis centres out of a total of 7–10 crisis centres for women in Lebanon.

“The manual also contains a section on how to teach members of staff to take care of themselves. It is a big problem that employees suffer from burnout. Some of the women who have been subjected to violence have substantial psychological issues. They are traumatised, and there may be suicide attempts,” says Amal Farhat.

“As a member of staff, you have to believe that women have the capacity and skills to create positive change in their life situation. There are also many success stories.”

Amal Farhat
Psychologist and manager of a crisis centre for children and consultant to ABAAD

“There is always also a lack of resources, and it often feels like standing with your back against the wall and not being able to see any way out. The big problem is always how women are to move forward with their lives and take care of themselves outside the centre,” says Amal Farhat.

NGOs’ work with women who have been subjected to violence has generally started up as charity work. It is, to put it simply, the good volunteer or staff member who tries to help the poor victim, Amal Farhat explains. This meant that the staff took too much of it to heart and were worn out.

“Now, we are working to ensure that the staff roles are professionally defined, that there are clear perspectives for action, and that the staff learn methods to take care of themselves,” says Amal Farhat.

Violence as cultural practice

The human rights-based approach also means that you make an active effort to involve men in the work in order to try to change the culture and prevent women from being exposed to violence.

A major cause of violence against women is that there is a widespread use of violence in the MENA region. Men are also exposed to a lot of violence, particularly as children and as young people. Many parents strike their children, masters strike their apprentices, teachers strike their students, just like officers strike the men enlisted in the army.

“Violence is a cultural practice. Severe penalties for violence against women have been introduced, but we need to make a great effort to change the cultural practices.”

Hajer el-Kefi
Psychologist at LTDH and instructor at Danner

“Violence is a cultural practice. Severe penalties for violence against women have been introduced, but we need to make a great effort to change the cultural practices. It is all about learning to express yourself without violence, about talking and arguing rather than striking out,” says Hajer el-Kefi from Tunis.

In Lebanon, there has been a campaign to get the heads of the country’s 16 different religious communities to take up the fight against violence. This resulted in a statement from the Muslim leaders that “Islam prohibits men from striking women”. This is a position, however, that is far from shared by all religious leaders, Muslim as well as Christian. As a consequence, women’s organisations in countries like Tunisia focus on human rights and the international conventions that the country has signed up to, and they insist that it is a rights issue.

Things are slowly moving forward

In Jordan, the authorities operate at least three centres, while one crisis centre is run by the organisation The Jordanian Women’s Union, which the Danish group KVINFO has worked with since 2008. The Jordanian Women’s Union has run hotlines since 1996, and as in all the countries in the MENA region, there is no doubt that there is a huge need for the help.

For the region’s most populous country, Egypt, with almost 100 million people, the work in combatting violence against women seems at present to have come to a standstill.

“Violence against women is not a taboo anymore, and there is progress in several countries, but I think changes are happening far too slow throughout the region.”

Dr. Fatima Khafagy.
Women's rights activist

“Sexual harassment has become a criminal offence, but no procedures have been introduced for how women can report sexual harassment, let alone violence,” says women’s rights activist Dr. Fatima Khafagy over the phone from Cairo.

The Ministry of Social Affairs operates approximately 10 crisis centres for vulnerable women but does not allow NGOs to set up centres. There are currently no Danish women’s organisations involved in crisis centre work in Egypt. During her time as ‘ombudsman’ for gender equality in the Egyptian National Council for Women, Dr. Fatima Khafagy worked with the Ministry of Social Affairs to improve the efforts of the crisis centres.

“Generally, there is virtually nobody who knows about the existence of the crisis centres, and there are often only 2–3 women who live there if they have not closed altogether because there are no women,” says Dr. Khafagy.

“Violence against women is not a taboo any more, and there is progress in several countries, but I think changes are happening far too slowly throughout the region. According to the Istanbul Convention, there should be one crisis centre for every 100,000 women, and no countries are anywhere near this number,” says Dr. Khafagy.