Despite the opening of the first safe-house for women in Cairo, few are choosing to leave their abusive marriages due to the social stigma and financial insecurity they would face.
Oum Mohammed was married when she was 16. “From the day I married him, he hit me over matters big and small,” she says of her husband.
“He told me that all women should be beaten. I didn’t protest because I was afraid he’d throw me and my children into the street,” she adds. “I’d seen my father hit my mother, and in every house in the alley a man hits a woman.”
Oum Mohammed’s story is just one of 700 case studies that the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), a local NGO, has collected over the past several years.
Hearing stories like these convinced ADEW that there was an urgent need for a shelter for women who are victims of violence.
According to the NGO, domestic abuse is common in Egypt. A 2001 survey conducted in low-income neighbourhoods found that 96 percent of women had been beaten at least once by their husbands.
Such violence is often condoned by society, or even by the victims, experts say.
A majority of the women surveyed in a government study, for example, said a husband had the right to beat his wife if she talked to him disrespectfully, talked to another man, spent too much money or refused her husband sex.
If a woman goes to the police station to report domestic abuse, the police adopt “the cultural perspective that the man has the right to do it”, says ADEW officer Bahira El-Gohary.
Men convicted of domestic violence in Egypt face sentences ranging from monetary fines to three years in prison. According to Nihad al-Qumsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, however, “most of the time, judges give low penalties”.
Obtaining a divorce, meanwhile, even in marriages where there is physical abuse, can be a long and costly procedure.
The fundamental problem is that most women have nowhere to go in the event that they leave their husbands. They face the economic difficulty of supporting themselves and their children, as well as the social stigma of living without a man.
The families and neighbours of such women often encourage them to return to their husbands.
The ADEW shelter was set up to offer them an alternative.
“This has never been done before,” says ADEW Director Iman Bibars.
According to women’s rights groups, there are no other public or private shelters for women escaping abusive relationships in Egypt, and only a few across the entire Middle East.
But bringing about the ground-breaking project hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve had very many problems with the opening of the shelter,” admits Azza Salah, head of the project.
While it has taken time to raise funds and find trained medical staff, ADEW officials say the greatest obstacle has been the women’s own fear of leaving their homes.
“We’re facing taboo issues: women sleeping outside the home and staying away from their families,” says El-Gohary. “Most of the women express their fears about how society would view them and whether it would accept them back.”
Salah says that many women think “if they leave the house, their husbands will take another woman”.
According to al-Qumsan, women also have reservations about the shelter’s capacity to provide for them once they have left their husbands. For a shelter to work, she says, it has to provide “a complete solution,” which means “helping a woman to become more independent, find a job, feed herself and her kids and find her own house”.
This is what ADEW’s “House of Eve” hopes to do. Located at an undisclosed location in the capital, the shelter offers counselling, medical check-ups, job training, literacy classes and legal advice.
If they choose to, about 20 women can live at the shelter with their children for up to three months. Upon leaving, they are given small loans as part of a micro-credit programme.
For now, women from some of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods are coming to the shelter to attend classes and talk to counsellors. But none of them have taken the step of moving into the House of Eve fulltime.
Any woman “is most welcome to come,” says El-Gohary.
“But…we can’t force her to come,” she adds. “It’s not an easy decision to take.”