Now in a shelter, a battered wife tells her story

E. sits in a comfortable lounge chair in a large sunlit room, keeping her arms protectively around her two children, aged three and five. E. is young, attractive and articulate and moves with a sense of self assurance. It is only when she starts to tell her story that her armor crumbles, her body begins to shake and tears pour unbidden down her cheeks. She deliberately speaks English to conceal hard facts from her little ones. E. is a battered wife, one of tens of thousands of such women in Israel, with the numbers escalating from year to year. No one knows exactly how many battered women there are. The Israel Women's Network and WIZO estimate a figure of 200,000. Na'amat puts it closer to 150,000, and some other women's organizations believe it is no more than 140,000. Whatever the figure, it's much too high. E. is one of the newer residents at Na'amat's Glickman Center, a Tel Aviv-based shelter for battered women and a center for the treatment and prevention of violence in the family. Married for eight years, she has been there only a week after enduring two years of beatings. Her husband's personality changed after he was seriously hurt in two accidents, and he began abusing her. Sometimes she called the police, sometimes she didn't. It depended on the severity of the beating and the nature of the threats. She says her daughters never actually saw her being beaten, "but they heard." However, Ruth Oseri, the director of the shelter, notes that "children see, hear and know everything, even when mothers think they don't." E. has never left home before. She finally took this drastic step when her husband threatened to kill their children. Of the 14 shelters for battered women in Israel, five are run by Na'amat. In fact, Na'amat pioneered the concept of such shelters here, opening its first shelter in Haifa in November 1977. Several other women's organizations operate shelters, halfway houses, hotlines, legal services, counseling services, vocational training and self-help services for women who have been physically and/or mentally abused, sexually assaulted, or living in fear of being assaulted because they are members of dysfunctional families. All the shelters are supported by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, which provides around 60 percent of their budgets. The Glickman Shelter, which can accommodate 12 women at any given time, takes in Arab as well as Jewish women, new immigrants of Ethiopian and Russian backgrounds and, of course, native Israelis and anything in between. There is no discrimination, except in the case of women who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol or employed as prostitutes. Most of the women who come to any of the shelters have low self-esteem and think they're ugly, poor mothers and bad housekeepers, says Oseri. "We give them back a sense of self-worth." In general, the women are expected to leave the shelters after six months, but they are not cast out if they have no place to go. Some remain in a shelter for as long as two years or even longer. Some come without any profession or previous work experience. These are the most difficult cases, according to Oseri, "because they literally have to start from scratch." At the shelters, they are taught computer skills, and the new immigrants are taught Hebrew. They may also get vocational guidance, but not vocational training because there are not enough funds available. In the case of the Glickman Center, which is situated in an affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood, they also receive a lot of clothes from people living in the area. Some of these people would also like to give them furniture to help them start their new lives when they leave the shelter, but there is nowhere to store it in the interim. Of the women who come to Glickman, 75% go out and open small businesses and try their utmost not to go back to their husbands, says Oseri. But if they do go back and discover that the violence continues, they can't come back to Glickman, on the off-chance that they have revealed its location to their husbands. Na'amat will take them back, but will send them to a shelter elsewhere in the country. Recently introduced legislation entitles each woman leaving a shelter to a NIS 10,000 grant from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. It doesn't go very far, but it gives the woman a start. The center's facilities for children include toys, playground equipment, punching bags on which to take out aggression, and beautifully equipped miniature kitchens. Written on the blackboard in the children's multipurpose wing are two Hebrew sentences: "Smiling is compulsory" and "Did you tell anyone today that you love them?" In August 1993, a shelter for Arab women was opened in the Galilee by an Arab organization called Women Against Violence, which is largely supported by the New Israel Fund. In 1996, Miklat Bat-Melech, which caters to religiously observant Jewish women, opened its first shelter. It now has two. In addition, a new phenomenon has reared its ugly head, says Orit Earon, director of the Glickman Center's program for the treatment and prevention of violence within the family. Elderly people are being abused by relatives and sometimes by caregivers, as well as by strangers who accost them in the street or in their homes. Na'amat is trying to organize a volunteer security roster for senior citizens, but still has to work out the logistics.