x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Help me - I'm being beaten up'

Every day brings distressed appeals to the helpline run by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

Helpline worker Khadra Hassan fields calls from victims of domestic abuse at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
Helpline worker Khadra Hassan fields calls from victims of domestic abuse at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

DUBAI // "I have a problem, please help me!" Several times every day, two women seated in a small, nondescript room pick up the phone to hear those words on the other end of the line.

From time to time it is one of their more harrowing calls - from a victim of human trafficking, for example. In one memorable case, the woman had somehow managed to get hold of a phone and was making the call from the apartment where she was being held captive. "She said that she was brought to work as a secretary, but she had been locked inside a flat and made to work as a prostitute," said Ateyat Salem, a 30-year-old Jordanian who took the call on the special helpline set up recently by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

In such cases, the most important thing is to get as much information from the woman as possible, to be passed along to the case managers - a team of social workers and psychologists. Ms Salem and Khadra Hassan, 26, from Somalia, answer dozens of calls each week, coming from women suffering at the hands of abusive husbands, men wondering how they can help their sisters and, sometimes, people who just need someone to talk to.

"When these people call through, we are there to listen gently and to get them help," Ms Hassan said, seated behind her computer, headset at the ready for the next call. The helpline - 800 111 - was officially launched this month, after a six-month trial, during which Ms Hassan and Ms Salem took more than 730 calls. Many were from people seeking information about the foundation, which was set up in 2007 under a decree issued by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to aid trafficked women, and victims of domestic violence and child abuse, but there were also genuine reports of abuse either from the victims themselves or from concerned friends. Some of the victims have since sought refuge in the secure shelter run by the foundation.

Sitting in front of a wall decorated with colourful drawings by children staying at the shelter, Ms Hassan said: "It's amazing as a woman to help another woman; it is very empowering for us." Calls come not only from Dubai, but across the country. Similarly, the callers are from a cross-section of the UAE's population - Emiratis, Indians, other Arab nationals and Europeans. Ms Hassan and Ms Salem, who both speak Arabic, Urdu and English, emphasise to callers that the service is confidential. Despite this, some callers still refuse to identify themselves, fearing that it may get back to their abusers.

"Sometimes they'll call and just call themselves 'Umm' [mother of] something," said Ms Salem. June and July saw an increase in the number of such calls, as word spread about the helpline. Earlier this month, a special episode of a Ramadan television series, Shaabiyat Cartoon, focused on domestic violence and featured information about the centre. "It was amazing; a lot of people called after that," said Ms Salem. "We encourage more people to call us directly, we're here to help and listen."

The economic downturn has also driven more people to pick up the phone, according to Ms Salem. "Some people have said that 'since my husband stopped working things have got really bad and he has taken it out on us'." Ms Salem has been working in the call centre since its trial phase in March, bringing with her years of experience in call centres in the private sector. "The first two months were very difficult, but then I got used to it," she said. "It is a very big responsibility and I am trying to manage it as best as possible."

The two women work in shifts around the clock, either in the office during the day or on a mobile phone, entering details of calls into a database, including the category of violence - child abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking - and the status of the case. The computerised system allows the foundation to receive and log calls and pass the information on to case managers as quickly as possible.

Some urgent cases have required immediate intervention. The centre fields about 20 calls a day, still mainly general inquiries, but around five - a quarter of the total - are from people in need, mostly arising from domestic violence. "I enjoy helping these victims, it is good to have someone they can talk to," said Ms Hassan. "These people need someone just to listen to them." Sometimes the women will provide basic pointers and safety guidance to the callers, such as advising them to identify a safe way to get out of the house, and to stay away from places where there are items that could be used as weapons.

"We also tell them to keep their keys and purse with them," said Ms Hassan. According to Dr Azhar Abuali, a clinical psychologist working with the foundation, one of its great strengths is the multidisciplinary nature of the team. "It is so important for these people to know that they are not alone and that there is always support," she said. "They can call and it's safe and confidential; someone else is out there who can help."

Amna al Mutawa, 26, one of the case managers, said her main job was to support the victims. "We try to outline a solution, but to find a solution together. We tell them what matters to you matters to us as well," she said. "It's not easy to speak up about these issues, so the call centre is like a window for people to reach out and find a solution." One day last month, a call came through from a young woman whose father had physically abused her and her sisters for years. The case was referred to Mrs al Mutawa.

"He beat her all the time and didn't allow the girls to communicate with their mother," she said. After one particularly brutal incident, the woman - whose identity cannot be disclosed - and her sisters managed to escape and called the helpline. They are now living together in another emirate, away from their father. "A lot of cases have been resolved," said Ms Salem. "Mostly we hear about domestic violence cases between husbands and wives."

While Ms Salem and Ms Hassan have been instrumental in helping dozens of victims, they both say they in their turn have benefited from the experience. "I feel as though I listen to people so much more now," Ms Hassan said. "People just tend to interrupt each other all the time. You learn how to listen, which has changed my way of handling things." zconstantine@thenational.ae