Shelters protect the most vulnerable

Plans for two domestic-abuse shelters have been shelved. Too many news reports about violence in the home have shown how important these refuges are for the most vulnerable.

After an Asian housemaid fled her abusive employer, a man who promised to help her instead locked her into a room with other women who had been forced into prostitution. The maid was beaten savagely when she refused.

That woman became one of the first to receive help at the new centre run by the aid group Ewaa - meaning "to shelter" - that opened in Ras Al Khaimah earlier this year. In her case, she was able to contact the outside world and eventually find refuge.

Sadly, news reports document the suffering of many others, including wives, children and household staff, who are in a similar plight. These women deserve a helping hand that is often only found in shelters.

For some, options exist. Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are home to Ewaa branches, while the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC) continues to add volunteers and expand services.

However, a shelter in Sharjah recently closed its doors. And as The National reported yesterday, plans for a domestic abuse shelter slated to open in Abu Dhabi by the end of the year have been shelved.

One explanation that has been offered - that shelters encourage the break-up of families - misses the point. A family that drives a woman to seek a shelter is in urgent need of attention and counselling.

Domestic and sexual abuse remain stigmatised subjects, in the past rarely discussed openly. Many women do not report abuse out of shame or for fear of being prosecuted themselves. Psychologists say that children often blame themselves for abuse. Some victims are supported or sponsored by their abusers. Many suffer in silence rather than seek help for fear of becoming jobless, homeless or even stateless. It is a quandary that can even force people to become fugitives.

Shelters can change such mindsets. "It is all about empowering them to make decisions,"said Seher Mir, the human rights officer for DFWAC. And empowerment can only come from awareness. There needs to be more information about victim rights and shelters that are available. In many cases, shelters remain the best option; a place victims can receive treatment, counselling and help to get back on their feet.

The first step is to acknowledge a problem. The imprisoned maid is a stark example, but many others will also need temporary refuge.

Published: August 8, 2011 04:00 AM