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03 September 2018

Iraq: When helpers need help

Living and working in the women’s safe house in Dohuk: From outside, the building with its barbed wire fence looks more like a prison than a place to find safety, and inside there is an atmosphere of hopelessness and sadness. These are the prevailing feelings among the 15 survivors of violence living here, and the 12 staff in the safe house are also feeling forlorn. They are overworked and feel abandoned by government and politicians. So how can medica mondiale best support the women’s safe house in Dohuk?

Living as a woman in a safe house

Life here can be difficult, even if behind the barbed wire the women finally gain some security. They have all been sent here by the courts to protect them from real threats such as the so-called ‘honour killing’. That, however, does mean they are not allowed to leave the building without good reason. So there is an urgent need for activities and positive distractions within the house, but these are in very short supply. Many of the residents have suicidal or aggressive tendencies. One consequence of this is that there are no mirrors – out of a fear that the women might smash them to create knife-like shards to injure themselves or others.

Work without appreciation

Working in the building is not easy, either. The staff in the safe house feel abandoned and overworked, especially having to deal with aggressive or suicidal residents. The women sent here are generally stigmatised by society and this stigma carries over to the staff, too, so some of them do not even tell their families where they work.

The biggest deficit, however, is the lack of appreciation shown by the state for their work – not even a letter of acknowledgement from the Ministry of Social Affairs. “Their most urgent need is a feeling that their difficult working situation is worth something,” says Malene Budde, psychotherapist and consultant for medica mondiale in Iraq. Since 2017 she has been training the staff members in the stress- and trauma-sensitive approach to dealing with women who survived violence. Previously there was no concept of trauma-sensitivity or of individual self-care. Generally the team would say that the working day has no time to talk or even think about things such as self-care. Many of them have been looking to quit for a long time but they need to earn money and have no choice if they cannot find other work.

How medica mondiale helps the women in the safe house

In order to improve the situation for both residents and staff at the safe house, medica mondiale sought assistance from the local women’s rights organisation EMMA. The experience of the women at the local Iraqi organisation and that of medica mondiale can now be combined to help the Dohuk safe house. Volunteers organise regular music and yoga classes, offering the women some variety and relaxation. Furthermore, EMMA and medica mondiale have made it possible for some important purchases to be made, despite the ongoing financial difficulties in northern Iraq. These include simple everyday necessities such as sanitary towels and tampons. And heating oil, which has become extremely expensive.