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03.06.2004 | IRIN News - United Nations

IRAQ: Shelter in north helps vulnerable women

SULAIYMANIYAH, 3 June (IRIN) - "In Middle Eastern societies, women are always in the wrong," said Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, founder of German NGO, Wadi.

To see just how many forms that can take, visit the Nawa Centre, opened by Wadi in December 1999 in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah and now run by the local Kurdish authorities.

Set up to provide shelter and counselling to homeless and battered women, the first of its kind in the Middle East outside Palestine, Nawa has harboured over 600 women in four years. The stories of today's 20 inmates sound like a compendium of the region's woes.

One old woman, an amnesiac, was kicked out by her family when she began to go senile. A girl from Pencwin on Iraq's Iranian border fled her village to avoid a marriage contracted when she was too young to speak for herself. An Iranian Kurd, unable to prevent her violent husband from marrying again, left her two children and fled to Iraq.

And then there is 21-year old Rasha, a native of Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. She is unlikely ever to be able to return. Frightened by the increasingly violent role her father was taking in anti-Coalition resistance there, she fled two months ago, taking her three younger sisters with her.

"He has always been an angry man, and would have preferred to have sons rather than daughters," she told IRIN in Sulaimaniyah. "But he spiralled out of control after the Americans captured Saddam. He wept for three days and vowed he would avenge him. The house filled up with weapons."

Rasha fled first to Kirkuk, two hours west of Sulaimaniyah, where police officers told her of the existence of Nawa.

"It took us two years to persuade local officials that the centre would not be immoral," von der Osten-Sacken told IRIN. "Once we had their approval, we began publicising the shelter as much as possible - appearances on TV and in newspapers, cooperation with local women's organisations, but also an information campaign focussing on civil servants in Sulaimaniyah governorate and beyond."

Officials at the centre admit they are at a loss as how to deal with Rasha. Yet, despite the variety and often extreme difficulty of the cases it is faced with, Nawa has a good record of conflict resolution.

Of the 437 women who spent more than seven weeks at the centre between 1999 and February 2003, 228 were reconciled with their families. The centre helped about 50 others either through divorce or marriage proceedings, or to find a job. In line with the centre's maxim that women should only stay as long as they wish, a further 70 simply decided to leave.

"Many of the cases we deal with started off as very simple family conflicts," Dunia Hamaali Said, who has worked as a counsellor at Nawa for nearly two years, told IRIN. "They end up in crisis because nobody in the family knows how to resolve them. If you have the tools, as we do, sorting
things out is often surprisingly easy."

With only limited security, though, Nawa does shy away from potentially more violent cases, such as women threatened with murder by their relatives for staining the family honour. Instead, it passes them on to more specialised shelters in Sulaimaniyah, like the recently-opened Asuda Centre.

The structure is in place, and has survived the transfer of responsibility to the local authorities, though Wadi staff still feel that improvements could be made.

"The counselling we offer at the moment is good, but basic," explained von der Osten-Sacken. "But many of the women at the centre are seriously traumatised. The ideal would be to have proper psycho-social therapy for them," he added.

Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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