Abused find a safe haven

A new foundation in Dubai is providing shelter from domestic violence and is looking to change attitudes.

Dubai, UAE, July 10, 2008 - A caseworker walks inside with a women receiving assistance from the shelter. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children assists victims of human trafficking, prostitution and other forms of abuse. Their facilities can currently house up to 80 families. (Nicole Hill / The National) *** Local Caption ***  NH WomenShelter046.jpg
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DUBAI // For dozens of women and children who have fled domestic violence and other kinds of abuse, solace has come from a unique haven. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWC), the country's sole registered and licensed shelter, opened its doors last October. But it is already planning to almost triple its capacity. "Abuse happens all over the world. It does not depend on the culture, religion, nationality or socio-economic background," said Seher Mir, the foundation's human rights officer. "And domestic abuse can encompass a lot. It can be full physical or sexual violence, or emotional and verbal."

The foundation aims to change attitudes toward abusive relationships and provide a model for future shelters. "Here we have a three-fold aim. We want to protect the women, promote self empowerment and promote the idea of protecting yourself against abuse and general violence." The shelter typically receives between 25 and 30 referrals and phone calls a month from people looking for advice or a place to go. Its location is a closely guarded secret.

The grounds, dotted by pergolas, are quiet, relaxing and unassuming. There is a school for the children, an adult education block with a canteen, swimming pool and medical facilities. Residents are housed in private villas. The women and children are referred by the police or the courts, or approach the foundation themselves. "We have developed," Mrs Mir said, "into a foundation providing protection to female victims of domestic violence, children who have suffered child abuse or neglect, and female victims of human trafficking."

But while the shelter offers support, it is ultimately the victims themselves who must decide their own futures. "We do not force anybody to reach decisions, these have to come from the victims themselves. We try to speak to them in ways so that they come to a rational decision on their own. Spoon feeding will not help them." The foundation also offers advice to those still trapped in abusive situations.

"Many of the victims are financially dependent on the abuser, which complicates the situation further. We advise women who call to plan on opening a bank account. It is all about empowering them to make decisions." The foundation was opened under a decree issued by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai, in line with the UN's Women's Convention, of which the UAE is a signatory.

Funded by the Government and private donations, the foundation offers indefinite care for those who need it. In a country filled with expatriates, one question the shelter always asks is whether the victims have their passports. "In a lot of the cases we see the passports and visas have been confiscated by the abuser," Mrs Mir said. "If they have it we tell them to put it in a safe place and make copies if they can.

Staff assess each case individually to determine if the victim is in any immediate danger. Those seeking shelter come from all walks of life. There are expatriates, Emiratis, married women, victims of sex trafficking, and children who are orphaned, abandoned or removed from potentially dangerous situations. "We had one case of a child who was from a second (wife). The mother died but the father did not want to introduce the child to his first wife and children. The boy was put in the care of a caregiver who did not look after him well, he was neglected. He had no other option than to come here," Mrs Mir said.

Changing attitudes about domestic violence is challenging. "Women historically and traditionally have been confined to the house and home environment and men have been more active in the private sphere. "Their domestic violence stays in the private sphere and never become public. How do you bring the private information to the public so that it can be addressed? How do you go into the private domain and ensure that the victim's voice is being heard?" she said.

The DFWC is currently discussing with various authorities, including the police and public prosecution, ways of strengthening the laws against abuse and reducing legal "grey areas". "The UAE is not that old. As the population increases, physical and sexual abuse is increasing. All women need to understand that regardless of their education level or colour or creed, they are human beings and have a right to dignity and self worth, and nobody should take that away by forcing them to do things against their will," said Mrs Mir.

The women who come to the shelter are often unaware of their rights and believe what their abusers tell them: that they would not be granted a divorce, be allowed to leave the abusive environment, or have their concerns taken seriously. They often stayed in abusive relationships so their children would have homes. The foundation has gone to great lengths to provide all the necessary comforts to the children staying with them. Its school looks and operates as any other primary school would, with things such as performance charts scattered with gold stars and achievement certificates on the wall.

The entire shelter has a community feel. There are no obvious signs the women and children have been subject to abuse - except for the huge security gate and wall surrounding the area. The foundation is in talks with a shelter in Texas about strengthening its security measures. "We do on occasion have people coming here, maybe three or four a month. We need top security for the protection of the women. In case the abusers are connected with the mafia, they are not going to come and get the women.

"Some of the women are naive and give away the location so we have a team of security who can protect the shelter should that happen. Protecting the women is our first priority," said Mrs Mir. The foundation organises a number of trips and activities such as English-language classes, birthday parties, museum trips and positive-thinking seminars to try to help break negative behavioural patterns. "Here we are a family and we look after each other," Mrs Mir said. "As our reputation and awareness spreads we expect to get even busier.

"Women do not need to suffer." @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae