Profession: Youth social worker
Residence: Tel Aviv
Hours of volunteering: Three to six a week.
Most meaningful moment: “Every encounter is meaningful for me. If after every phone call the woman in question felt very bad at the beginning and feels better and less alone at the end, then that is meaningful. I feel I’m doing something to make society better.”‘I can’t tolerate violence and injustice in general and particularly against women and children,” says Irit Ben-Nissim about her volunteering with the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center.For the last five and a half years, the center has been a constant in her life. Ben-Nissim, 31, works with teenage dropouts in her day job for the Tel Aviv Municipality, and also gives many hours of her week to manning the hot lines at the center, in sitting on the seven-member elected board which runs the center and in teaching potential volunteers who have to take a six-month once-a-week course to qualify. “Not everyone who wants to help at the center is emotionally suitable,” she says. “You have to go into it with your eyes open and realize that if you do get accepted and do the course, it’s a commitment of at least a year.”Always an ardent feminist, she first began volunteering because of her strong beliefs. “If it were not for feminism, no one would have taken any notice of violence against women in our patriarchal society,” she maintains.But over the years she has come to understand the phenomenon of sexual assault and rape as a dark symptom of something with deep roots in the power game between men and women.“It’s very complex,” she says. “Rape is one of the results of women’s voices being silenced. Today we claim there is no longer repression of women, but there is, it just takes other, more subtle forms.” Ben-Nissim believes that in our society girls are constantly being sent the message that they have to be beautiful, dress well, use makeup, be thin and be attractive to the opposite sex. The media message is that the body is a tool, an object for the benefit of men.“I see this message constantly as I work with teenagers, and I try to teach them that they should be what they want to be and not according to men’s expectations of them. In the end, the answer to all these misconceptions lies in education.”The Rape Crisis Center was established in 1978. Most activists agree that progress has been made – the center has volunteers dealing directly with the police in cases in which a woman wants to bring charges – and the notion of “victim guilt” is, in the main, no longer a given as in the bad old days.Manning the hot lines can be a fulfilling experience for a volunteer. “The lines are available 24/7, and often we get calls from women who were raped perhaps years before but suddenly want to talk about it. We listen because we know this is the only place she can speak freely without being told what to do. What we do is basically give her back control of her life.”According to Ben-Nissim, it’s not only the victim who calls. “There is no single pattern of behavior. We get calls from parents, boyfriends, teachers and work colleagues all wanting to know how they can help in some way.”For the victim the support comes on two different levels. “First of all it’s a listening, sympathetic, nonjudgmental ear when we focus on what the woman needs, emotionally. But it’s also informative: Does she need a hospital, a psychologist, a lawyer, the police? If there’s already been a complaint, we advise on the legal procedures. The primary aim is to give her the feeling she is not alone.”Ben-Nissim grew up in Jerusalem, where her father had a butcher shopand her mother was a nurse in the maternity department of a largehospital. She studied for a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies andphilosophy at Tel Aviv University and later took another qualificationin group leadership. She is also a qualified shiatsu therapist.Always an activist, she feels strongly that everyone can bring aboutchanges to what is wrong in society if they have the will to succeed.“We are doing something wrong as a society; we need to rethink themessages we are giving and getting,” she says. “We need to wake up andstop what is still a conspiracy of silence. Yes, we can stop rape andno, it isn’t a hopeless aim. Remember that a hundred years ago womendidn’t have the vote either.”
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