DUBAI // A group that helps victims of domestic violence deals with only a tiny proportion of the true number of cases, its head has cautioned.
"What is hidden, nobody knows," said Afra Al Basti, executive director of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
In the absence of accurate statistics, the foundation plans a large-scale study of domestic violence and child abuse in all seven emirates.
And for anyone sceptical that the problem exists, Ms Al Basti told an audience at Dubai School of Government on Tuesday that domestic abuse could happen to anyone, anywhere, and was not always physical.
She described one distraught victim who came to the foundation, a "highly qualified female manager" who ran her own business. She lent her husband money to start a small company. "Then he started cheating on her with his secretary," Ms Al Basti said.
The husband berated his wife, describing his illicit relationship in detail. And the wife — high-powered though she was — "started to fall apart".
Bruises are not the only sign of abuse, Ms Al Basti said. "She was totally depressed, she was shaking, she could not talk."
Despite growing awareness, many people still do not think of domestic violence as something that plagues their own communities.
"I didn't know that we had domestic violence in the UAE," said Muna Al Abdullah, a 23-year-old social work student at Zayed University who attended the lecture. "I was shocked to hear that there are many cases."
More women have sought help from the foundation and Dubai Police in recent years, but it is still difficult for victims to come forward.
Many victims blame themselves. "They will say, 'It is me, I am the one causing the problem, I am the one making him mad'," Ms Al Basti said.
Some fear that if they report their problem, their situation will get worse, said Dr Fekreya Arjamand, psychological services manager for the foundation.
And because there are few federal resources for domestic violence victims, women outside Dubai sometimes do not know where to turn, Ms Al Basti said.
"I think on a federal level, the Ministry of Social Affairs should take a big role in this area," she said.
Women from all over the country come to the Dubai foundation's doorstep, particularly from the Northern Emirates.
"It shows the need in the different emirates for a place like this," she said.
Domestic violence is a pattern of physical, sexual, psychological or verbal abuse between spouses, relatives or intimate partners. People in abusive relationships often cycle between episodes of violence and honeymoon phases, when the perpetrator begs forgiveness and promises to make amends, Ms Al Basti said.
Among the Emirati population, Ms Al Basti said she believed the incidence of domestic abuse was limited.
"What we've seen and experienced is something totally not in our culture," she said. "Totally not in our culture."
However, her organisation, founded in 2007, does see some Emirati clients. Many of the foundation's domestic violence cases involve mixed marriages, between Emirati men and expatriate women, she said.
Though her work is heavy, Ms Al Basti said she is buoyed by success stories.
She described a woman who came to the foundation's shelter so traumatised that for months she could not even discuss what had happened to her.
Today, she lives outside the foundation with her children, who attend school. She is no longer afraid of her husband.
"And she's got her own money," Ms Al Basti said. The audience broke into applause.