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Women for Women: Haifa’s Shelter for Battered Wives

Haifa's shelter for battered wives

“All their lives, people have been telling these women what to do. What we want to do is give them time to think. Here, they’re not in danger of their lives.” These words express the main goal of Haifa’s shelter for battered women. About 200 women have lived there in the shelter since it was founded a year ago. Some have stayed a few days, others weeks, while twice that number have passed through, seeking counselling about their husbands or about birth control or pregnancy. Fifty to 60% return to their husbands.

Three or four times during the year, men have tried to break into the shelter, an apartment with an unlisted address, to get their wives. “The women are great,” an American-born volunteer counsellor said. “They’re ready for the man with pots and pans. When they’re alone, they never stand up to their husbands. When they’re together, it’s different. Also, when men come by we usually call the police right away, and they’ve been very helpful.”

The staff of the shelter consists of volunteer counsellors, a few part-time paid administrators, and one professional full-time social worker.

All the shelter administrators hold other jobs, as there is not enough money to pay them full salaries. Limitations on money and staff have meant that the shelter has had to refuse many of the calls for help that it receives. It has had to turn away the teenage girls who sought refuge there.

Former Knesset member Marcia Freedman, the original driving force behind the shelter, said, “We started with nothing —no money, no place.” Gradually contributions came in, and finally, IL500,000 (about $20,800) was obtained from the government. Each woman who stays there contributes a small amount to help keep up the shelter. Most of the women pay this money out of welfare checks.

For some women, their welfare checks may be the first money of their own that they’ve had.

Children as well as mothers seem to benefit by leaving their difficult home situations and coming to the shelter. “Most of the children come looking really scared,” said a volunteer. “Within a few days, it’s beautiful to see, they’re just like regular children.”

The great majority of battered women who have lived at the shelter are working class, and either Sephardic or have husbands of this background. Israeli Arab women do not come to the shelter for help, and there are no Arab women on the staff. Middle class Jewish women seem to feel that it would be degrading to stay at the shelter, volunteers said, and they may have the money to find other help. However, many of them do come for advice.

“One woman was beaten both by her husband, a lawyer, and her son, a 28-year-old medical student,” said a shelter worker. “Most of the middle-class women that come to us say, at some point in the conversation, ‘To think I should have come to this!’ or If my husband were to see me now!’ They feel so ashamed to be turning to us for help. I try to tell them, ‘Look, it’s he that ought to be ashamed!’ “