Domestic violence - breaking the cycle

Hundreds of women, mostly new immigrants with children, suffer abuse. Who can they turn to?

abuse metro 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
abuse metro 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tanya had promised herself that if he hit her or swore at her one more time, she would leave. He beat her regularly, but this time was much worse then in the past. She arrived at the shelter with just the clothes on her back, her two-year-old daughter, a broken arm and a bruised face. She could not remember what the fight was about. Was it because she wanted to take Hebrew lessons, or because she wanted to take her daughter for a walk in the park? Tanya, 25, is a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union. She is an attractive blonde who looks the picture of innocence, but the sadness in her brown eyes betrays that image. Twirling her thumbs around each other, she told Metro her story. Thinking her husband was quite a catch, she accepted his marriage proposal after only six months of dating. However, her dream of a happy marriage quickly faded and was replaced by the reality of abuse. The couple was living in Latvia when the abuse began. She did not file a complaint with the police against her husband because he convinced her that he would be able to bribe the police, and they would never help her. Most of their three-year marriage was spent living with one of their mothers. He would shamelessly hit her in front of them as they helplessly looked on. One night, he came home drunk and beat her mother after she suggested that they separate. He threatened to kill her if she interfered again, and Tanya, in order to protect her mother, agreed to move out of her home. Shortly after, they immigrated to Israel. She thought that the law in Israel was stricter than in Latvia, and that he would be punished if he beat her. The abuse continued and only got worse, until she finally found the courage to leave. After four months in the shelter, Tanya sees life more positively. She is protected from her abuser and understands that she has rights. She realizes that she can cope on her own and does not have to be economically dependent on her husband. Her daughter is the center of her life, and as she talks about her, she smiles for the first time and the sadness that filled her eyes disappears momentarily. Her daughter is a happy baby now, no longer afraid of strangers and no longer clinging to Tanya. She knows that once she leaves the shelter, she must remain in Israel because her husband will not allow her to take the baby out of the country. She thinks that she can find work cleaning houses, and is prepared for that as long as it enables her to create a good life for her child. She has decided that she will never return to her abuser. On a quiet street in Herzliya sits a nondescript house that doubles as a refuge for women like Tanya. From the outside, one would not guess that it houses women who suffered silently until they could no longer bear it. Forced to flee from their tormentors, they sought a safe place, where they can begin to heal. The L.O. Combat Violence Against Women (Lamed Alef - lehima b'alimut neged nashim) was formed in 1977, and opened the shelter in 1978 in an effort to provide refuge for women in danger. Through seminars and lectures, the organization has become a leading voice in education about domestic violence. It has trained police officers how to deal sensitively with victims. Today, domestic violence officers are posted in every police station. The organization, which works to eliminate all forms of violence against women, also helps victims of trafficking and run a free legal aid hotline. Ruth Rasnic, founder and executive director, was horrified by the callousness of a man who murdered his wife of three months. "His comment that he didn't think that the abuse would ever lead to her death is what triggered my desire to provide shelter for abused women," says Rasnic. "Does that mean that it's okay for a wife to be abused, provided that she stays alive?" For Rasnic, who had already been involved in women's issues for several years, opening a shelter came naturally. She has since opened three others that have offered a safe retreat to at least 5,000 women and 7,000 children over the past 30 years. The shelter in Herzliya, which can house 26 women and children, is run as a small commune. The house mother makes a daily schedule, giving each resident a job to do, whether it be cleaning a certain room or cooking the meals. The staff "try to create a normal life in a place that is not normal," says shelter director Naomi Sachar. The staff and volunteers work with the women on an individual basis or in groups. Treatment approaches include psychodrama, reiki, shiatsu, psychotherapy, reflexology, dance and art therapy, ceramics, Hebrew lessons (for new immigrants) and bonding between the mothers and their children. The residents take care of each other emotionally: When a new woman arrives, not only does the staff take her under their wings, so do the other women, each trying to help her to adjust to her new life. "Some women are petrified when they first arrive, and their insecurity makes them question the lack of police at the shelter, or why the surrounding walls are not higher," says Rasnic. "When they begin to adjust to their new surroundings, they begin to realize that they have to learn to live with fear." While a woman's confidence may have been reduced by her husband's constant criticism, she receives positive comments from her housemates. "Some women never cooked before entering the shelter, and some are experienced cooks, so even something which seems so basic can be a learning experience," explains Rasnic. "If a woman's husband constantly complained that her food was not good, and then followed the complaint by throwing the plate of food at her, she'll probably believe she really can't cook. When the other residents compliment a meal, the 'cook' receives instant support and her self esteem increases. Words of encouragement from fellow residents can go a long way, and this is the beginning of the woman feeling empowered." Since 1989, a hotline run out of this shelter provides assistance to callers in Hebrew, Russian, English and Spanish. The hotline is staffed by 60 volunteers who undergo a three-and-a-half month intensive training course. Twenty volunteer courses have been held since the hotline opened. On average, volunteers answer three calls per day, but on a day like November 25, the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women, they received many more calls. "Most of the calls are from women just wanting to talk, to reach out to someone who will understand them. They may call several times before actually seeking help, and few of the calls are emergencies. The hotline receives approximately 1,800 calls each year," says Rasnic. The shelter also has a playground and a small kindergarten. "It's very difficult for young children to be uprooted from the lives they are accustomed to," Sachar points out. "Add to that a new school with children and teachers with whom they are unfamiliar, the child may feel stressed. Many of them suffer from separation anxiety so they attend the kindergarten on the shelter's grounds, close to their mothers." In addition to coming from abusive homes, in some cases "these children have to cope with life in a new country, learning a new language and financial difficulties, so it is no wonder that their school grades suffer. The children also tend to be lonely. They shy away from visiting friends because they are not comfortable bringing their friends to their home," Sachar continued. In their struggle for survival, the mothers usually do not seem to realize how deep the effect on their children can be, she noted. The first shelter for battered women in Israel opened in Haifa in 1977. Today, there are 13 shelters in the country, including two for religious Jewish women and two for Arab women. There are also 67 centers that deal with issues of family violence that offer individual and group counseling to some 7,000 women, 2,200 men and 700 children per year. In an average year, tens of thousands of women are battered and 14 are murdered. Approximately 750 women and 1,000 children enter shelters annually. Some stay for a few weeks; some stay for months. If women are in danger, they will be sent to a shelter. However, therapists always hope that the husband will also accept treatment. If he doesn't, the destructive behavior will continue. The centers try to provide therapy for the children, because many boys who witness abuse will copy their fathers' behavior as adults, explains Tzipi Nachshon Glick, national coordinator for the treatment of domestic violence. "Also, some 60 percent of abused mothers fight their own abuse by abusing their children. Treatment of men does not always succeed - some will stop the physical violence, but begin with emotional abuse." Abuse comes in many forms, all of which are closely related. "Physical abuse is a form of emotional abuse, and sexual abuse is a form of physical abuse," notes Glick. "All forms are equally destructive. Some women are even raped by their husbands. Abuse results of the man's desire to gain control. He may have had a bad day at work and channel his anger on his wife instead of his boss. He may be afraid that she will leave him, so he instills so much fear in her so that, ironic as it seems, she will not leave. He views her as a possession." According to Glick, abuse occurs in a cycle: The husband tends to find wrong in everything that his wife does. He will then begin to complain, and the complaints lead to a beating. After the beating, they will both relax because what they both know was going to happen has happened. Then they enter the "honeymoon phase," during which he may apologize for his behavior, cry and bring her presents. This phase can last for any period of time, until the complaints begin again. The woman's life becomes like a rollercoaster. She can never be sure when the abuse will happen, and her fear and expectation of future violence places her in a position where she feels she must be doing something to make him angry enough to hit her. Then, again, they will enter the honeymoon phase and she can relax until the next episode. "Weekends and holidays tend to be the worst days for those who are abused, and therefore most complaints come in on Fridays and Sundays," says Glick. What is it that makes women stay in an abusive relationship? "The underlying reason is fear," says Rasnic. In a sad way, it is the norm for them, she explains. Many come from families where abuse was a regular part of life, and they learned that as long as their mothers' lives were not in danger, their families should remain intact. However, there is no 'profile' of an abused woman, or of an abuser. They can be of any nationality, religion, financial or educational level. Often, these women are abused during the courting period, and although their families may see the signs and warn them, they will rationalize their boyfriends' behavior. When the marriage becomes abusive, they do not want to turn to their families because they are afraid that all they will hear is "we told you he is that way." Many women endure years of beatings, but only find the courage to speak out when the violence is directed at their children. It is then that they will seek help. "Approximately 50% of women who leave their husbands will not return," notes Glick. "The other 50% who do return may go in and out of a shelter two or three times before leaving their husbands for good. Forty percent of the women who do go back to their husbands do so because the children want to be with their fathers. A large majority don't think they can support themselves and their children, and feel that they don't have a choice." Since the mid-1990s, many of the shelters' residents have been new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia - with no family in Israel to turn to, their only option is to seek protection among strangers. Some women are afraid to leave the confines of the shelter, but it is best that they do not stay more then a few months. While there, they receive physical protection and are taught that the law is on their side. The shelter also provides legal aid, and after women understand their rights, they feel more confident about leaving the shelter. Domestic violence is now being viewed with greater understanding, but much remains to be done, Glick points out. In general, Israelis are becoming more compassionate as they begin to understand the complexities of the problem. This is due in a great part to the dedication of people like Rasnic, Sachar and Glick, who consider it a "calling." However, there are still people who prefer to not be involved, or who simply blame the women, not understanding why they stay in an abusive relationship. Rasnic says that her work "will create less need for shelters and no more need for work with victims of domestic violence." She hopes that "this man-made horror will no longer be with us. The way to go about it is education - working with the schools, with the parents and helping them to have violence-free relationships." Tanya will eventually leave the shelter, the place she has called home for the past four months. Her place in the crowded room will be occupied by someone else. The rooms do not stay empty for long. Hotline numbers: L.O. Combat Violence Against Women: 1-800-353-300 Haifa Battered Women's Hotline: 1-800-22-0000