Shamsaha, the Middle East’s first and only domestic and sexual violence crisis programme, is expanding beyond its Bahrain base, both digitally and physically, to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman, thanks to a financial commitment from cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
In 2020, Shamsaha dealt with more than 1,000 interactions on its helpline. With its growing reach, it’s predicted that the organisation will be able to support 4,000 women in the GCC by the end of 2022.
Giving women a voice
“Through our partnership, we aim to support Shamsaha’s mission to break the silence around domestic violence in the region, help women stand for themselves by providing direct support, and give them a voice so they can realise their full potential socially and economically,” L’Oreal Middle East managing director Remi Chadapaux tells The National.
Shamsaha founder and executive director Mary-Justine Todd says the grant will allow the organisation to replicate the success they’ve already had. “From the beginning, the vision was to use Bahrain as the starting point to grow a model for the rest of the region - now the GCC, and, inshallah, one day all the Middle East.”
The undisclosed sum of money is coming out of the L’Oreal Fund for Women, a three-year, €50 million ($59m) charitable endowment, which the French beauty brand established in order to help alleviate the difficulties brought disproportionately to women around the world by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shamsaha plans to roll out its digital and physical presence in the four new territories over the course of two years. A mobile app is also under development and will be launched for Android and iOS after the summer.
“It should be like a one-stop shop, both for the victims and our volunteers,” Todd explains. “The plan is to use the app as a vehicle for expansion and awareness, and then we will roll out the physical presence in each country.”
Prevalence rates of violence against women are not substantially different from region to region. About one in three women in the world have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to the World Health Organisation.
"There are millions and millions of women in this region who will experience abuse at some point in their lives,” says Todd. “When it does happen, we will be there, ready with services for support.”
Shamsaha, meaning “her sun” in Arabic, was founded in 2016 under the name Women’s Crisis Care International. It is a non-profit corporation that operates entirely on donations from individuals and institutions, with a commendable 80 per cent of funds going directly towards programmes.
“Shamsaha was the first, and continues to be the only, full-scale domestic and sexual violence crisis response programme in the Middle East,” says Todd. "There are other good organisations, like counselling centres and shelters, but the way that crisis advocacy operates is unique and offers a special care for victims.”
A mission in crisis advocacy
Shamsaha's mission is to protect, advocate and empower women. Its work is organised around three clear mandates: providing 24/7 crisis care, carrying out case work, and improving community education and awareness.
Crisis advocacy is the first and largest of the three mandates, and it begins when a victim calls or texts the free helpline. Although there are dedicated numbers for Arabic and English, Shamsaha representatives speak a total of 20 languages. Currently, there are more than 100 certified women’s crisis advocates who ensure that informational, emotional and logistical support is available around the clock.
More often than not, once a client’s immediate crisis needs are met, they will also need support in the medium and longer term.
“The women who come to us have different situations and different backgrounds, and each case has a different set of goals that we need to achieve,” says casework manager Fatima Al Haddad.
Shamsaha offers whatever help it can to meet its client’s needs, including legal assistance, therapy and medical attention. Generally, cases are resolved within six months, but the support can extend as long as necessary.
A ‘shadow pandemic’
This growing regional solution coincides with a growing international problem, exacerbated by the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. UN Women describes it as a ‘shadow pandemic’ of intimate partner violence against women and girls. There have been reports of a five-fold increase in calls to helplines in some countries.
“Women and children are often the first to suffer, whether it's a man-made crisis, natural disaster, or economic crisis,” says Todd. “That is well-established. But I think there are also unique characteristics of a pandemic situation that have resulted in the increase of violence against women.”
The reasons for this are twofold, she says. Firstly, with people isolated in their homes for long periods, there’s simply more opportunity for violence to occur or reoccur. Secondly, increased stress factors and mental health issues can lead to increased levels of violent behaviour among men.
The economic cost of violence
Even before the pandemic hit, it was proven that violence against women creates significant economic costs. UN Women puts the figure at $1.5 trillion annually, roughly the size of the Canadian economy.
Measuring the impact of something as horrific and pernicious as domestic violence in monetary terms may seem crass, but it’s not feasible to quantify moral imperatives. Todd explains: “There are basically four categories of costs: the first is direct tangible costs, and this includes things like the taxi fare that someone has to pay to get to the hospital; secondly, there’re indirect tangible costs, like reduced productivity at work, or lost earnings and profits resulting from missed workdays; thirdly, economists can calculate direct intangible costs, such as the value placed on pain and suffering, or the emotional loss that someone will feel from a violent death; and finally, indirect intangible costs represent things like the ongoing negative psychological effects that witnessing abuse might have on a child.
“When you add up these costs and consider the number of the women in the world, their average lifespan, and then factor in the knowledge that about a third of them will experience violence at some point, you get these astronomically high numbers.”
Volunteer and outreach co-ordinator Eman AlBahrani says the WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
“Abuse and violence of all types and intensities is detrimental to health. If you remind people in crisis that they’re capable and deserving of finding a better life and realising their dreams, then that’s really all the change that you need to make in the world to improve quality of life, to improve family cohesion, to develop communities. The impact is almost immediate.”
How to help someone in need
Just as there are tangible and intangible costs arising from violence against women, there are tangible and intangible ways that people can confront the scourge.
Todd says that while symptoms of abuse can present physically, such as wearing heavy clothes in hot weather to potentially cover up bruises, it’s important to remember that most forms of abuse are not visible. “You might see someone emotionally shutting down, or notice some sort of change in their personality,” she says. “You might find that someone is isolating themselves by avoiding gatherings and never being available.
“One of the main things we teach our volunteers is to never, ever give advice. Nobody listens to advice, we do what we want to do, when we’re ready to do it. The way we help a woman get ready to make a change in her life is by being there for her, being her friend, and trying to plant a seed of confidence and support.
“She needs the confidence that she can make her own decisions, and if you tell her what to do you’re taking away her decision-making authority, which further disempowers her - it’s just what the perpetrators of abuse do. She needs to feel the inner strength.”
How to volunteer at Shamsaha
Providing crisis services for every woman who needs them, every minute of every day, involves a lot of people involved. Naturally, the number of volunteers required is set to grow in tandem with the expansion of services.
Currently, Shamsaha runs three 40-hour volunteer training courses per year. Due to pandemic restrictions, recent sessions have moved online, although it is hoped there will be a return to in-person training in the near future.
Volunteers are expected to cover a minimum of two 12-hour shifts per month for at least six months from the completion of their training. There is no prior experience or education required.
“The training covers every aspect of how to become an advocate, and we don’t throw our volunteers into the deep end. We equip them with everything that they need to then be able to to support other women. So if that is a fear, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered,” says regional expansion project leader Noor Toorani.
Empathy and empowerment
AlBahrani, who has a background in public health, first joined Shamsaha in 2018 and has since risen to the level of volunteer and outreach co-ordinator. Shahnaz Farooqi, meanwhile, a law graduate studying to become a human rights lawyer, only completed her training in January.
“People tell me the person I was six months ago versus now is drastically different, and I think that can be attributed to volunteering as an advocate,” says Farooqi. “For me, there’s something so empowering about empowering other women. It’s surreal that just giving a bit of support can allow a person to live the life they deserve. You feel like you’re doing your part in society.
“That feeling of empathy has shifted my perception of what Shamsaha does, and ultimately of the strength of women. Empathy has been used as a way to weaken women, viewed like a weak trait that we have, but I found that empathising strengthens you to empower the person right then and there, and that really is the reason why I keep doing shifts.”
Todd agrees. “We have to change a culture of acceptance of the patriarch. We have to change a culture of acceptance of making violence against women sexy. Women’s bodies are used to sell things. They’re used to sell perfume, they’re used to sell handbags, they’re used to sell TV shows, and if we stop accepting that and refuse to buy into these products and brands, and this culture of acceptance with impunity for men, eventually you can have a global shift in thinking.
“We’re not going to change the world tomorrow, but you have to start somewhere.”
Free crisis care is available 24/7 by calling or messaging 00973 3844 7588 for English and 00973 6671 0901 for Arabic. More information is available at www.shamsaha.org