Standing Up to Domestic Violence In Tel Aviv

An unprecedented women-led initiative to combat domestic violence is promoted among the communities of African asylum seekers in the slums of Tel Aviv, writes Inna Lazareva.

al-monitor Children of migrant workers play on a beach in Tel Aviv, on Israel's Independence Day, April 16, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Topics covered

women, abuse, israel

Apr 30, 2013

In a sunny, pastel-walled kindergarten in a rundown part of Tel Aviv, toddlers crawl on the floor to the gentle music of Baby Mozart. For Zebib Sultan, a 29-year-old Eritrean who set up the center last summer, the soft piano trills are a world away from the shrill screaming she heard from the other side of the wall of her Tel Aviv apartment just one year ago.

The sounds came from Zebib’s neighbor, Hailie (not her real name), herself a recent immigrant from Eritrea. She and Zebib shared the same cramped two-bedroom apartment with their husbands and four other people, juggling 14- to 16-hour cleaning shifts, house work and family life.

When Zebib first met her, Hailie was always quiet. "I always saw her crying,” Zebib said. “She told me it was because she missed her family, because of her financial problems, but I got the sense that there was something else, that she was afraid of her husband, Salom.”

In reality, Salom was abusing Hailie, beating her violently every day. Out of shame, Hailie would muffle her mouth with her hand as he hit her, so as not to emit a sound. After she became pregnant, the abuse became only worse. “He never gave her food, never allowed her to go to a gynaecologist, she never had a pregnancy follow-up,” Zebib said. “She was in a very bad condition, but was never allowed to go outside and speak to people. She didn’t even have a mobile phone.”

Zebib had heard of such cases before. Last year, a man had been beating his wife continuously — the woman suffered in silence, telling only one person who was unable to help. “In the end, he slit her throat,” Zebib said.

There are very few global organizations which monitor instances of domestic abuse among asylum seeker communities. According to activists in Israel, the problem is severe. “Domestic abuse is the most difficult and the most pressing issue in the community,” said Habtum Mehari, an Eritrean asylum seeker who regularly volunteers to help those in need. “Just think that 10 immigrant women were murdered by their husbands in less than two years in Israel. Out of a community of 36,000, that’s a very big number. These are women who are mothers. Many others are getting abused by their husbands, beaten and locked in their houses. It’s the most pressing issue in the community today.” Due to her work as an activist, Zebib has come to know many women who face the abuse daily. She estimates that 70% of all Eritrean women in Israel experience domestic violence.

At first, a solution was not obvious. Aid organizations note the increase in violence once women are away from their home communities. “In Eritrea, if a woman was abused by her husband, she would go to her family, who would arrange a meeting with her husband’s family, and then they would involve an elder within their village to mediate.” explained Sara Robinson from Amnesty International (AI) Israel. “But when you’re an immigrant, that whole system breaks down because you don’t have your family around.”

Others say that domestic abuse in Eritrea is a part of the culture, where women are subjugated, and where few will turn to the police. According to Diddy Mymin, psychosocial project manager at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv, despite having the same access to the law as Israelis, the fear of reprisals is substantial enough to deter many asylum seekers in Israel from reporting the abuse. "We've had women in our shelters who made reports to the police and who then retracted their statements because they received threats from friends or members of the family," Mymin noted.  To help, the ARDC has set up a women's shelter for the most vulnerable — pregnant women, new mothers and single-parent families. Another organization, Assaf, offers psychosocial support for refugees and asylum seekers. Sometimes, dispute mediation can go through the church. All of these, however, involve acknowledging the abuse in the first place. “The problem is also that the Eritrean women do not speak out,” said Habtum. “They do not tell others when the violence starts — they hope that tomorrow it will all be OK.”

Inna Lazareva is a British journalist and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and based in Tel Aviv. You can read more of her writing on www.innalazareva.com.

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