Inside The Middle East’s First Rape And Domestic Violence Crisis Program

At Women’s Crisis Care International, the mission is simple: Help women impacted by violence by being there for them in their hour of need.

For the last year and a half, there’s been a new sight in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Lodged into stacks of newspapers, stuck to mirrors in restaurant bathrooms, and pinned to grocery store notice boards are small, blue-and-white fliers with a simple but powerful call to action: Ladies, are you being hurt or abused? Help is available! Call Women’s Crisis Care International 24/7.

The fliers may seem relatively unremarkable. But they’re part of something both groundbreaking and life-changing — the Middle East’s first-ever rape and domestic violence crisis-response program.

Since launching in January 2016, Women’s Crisis Care International, or WCCI, has helped more than 150 survivors of domestic and sexual violence, while using educational campaigns to challenge societal narratives about male violence against women.

To learn more about this historic initiative, I met with the WCCI team on a warm day in Bahrain. The organization’s founder, Mary-Justine Todd, known as M-J, has a hearty laugh and the kind of open enthusiasm and extroverted charisma that can fill a room. She has a background in women’s public health and worked as a crisis advocate and president of a crisis intervention organization in New York City, as well as doing similar work for six years in refugee camps in West and East Africa. Arriving in Bahrain in 2013, M-J says she quickly saw the potential for an organization like WCCI.

In 2015, Bahrain — a regional leader in regards to women’s empowerment — criminalized domestic violence. Later that year, the Supreme Council for Women — an advisory body to the government on women’s issues — launched the National Strategy to Protect Women from Domestic Violence. M-J explains that although there were other charities in Bahrain dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence, there was still the need for a 24/7-crisis response team. The timing for WCCI, she says, was right.

“Public health research tells us that the most predictive factor for how well a woman will recover from a traumatic event is how well she is treated afterward,” M-J explains. “We also know that the majority of women won’t seek help as time goes on in the weeks or months following a trauma, so we have a very small window of opportunity to access the survivors and affect a positive change toward recovery. Immediate care within 24 hours is the most effective way to prevent the development of PTSD.”

‘The most predictive factor for how well a woman will recover from a traumatic event is how well she is treated afterward.’

When a woman calls the WCCI crisis line, any time day or night, an advocate answers the phone to offer this crucial immediate care. Often the callers ask for advice or just want to talk, but other times they need further assistance, in which case the advocate will meet the survivor at a hospital, police station, or women’s shelter. This immediate response gives advocates the chance to support victimized women from the beginning of their recovery process, offering an important foundation of care and understanding. The advocates are rigorously trained to support the survivor at this time to achieve WCCI’s slogan — from crisis to calm together.

Our hostess for the day, Fauzia, a WCCI advocate, has prepared a table full of food for the gathered team members; there are spicy samosa and even spicier channa, donuts and cupcakes, and honey-sweetened lemonade. We gather around and pile our plates high, as I ask the team why they wanted to volunteer for an organization like WCCI. The women come from all over the world — among WCCI’s 65 advocates, more than 28 languages are spoken — but their answers are remarkably similar. They each cite a desire to help women impacted by violence by being there for them in their hour of need.

WCCI advocate training session

The care offered by WCCI is not about pushing an agenda; their services are focused on offering help to the survivor, not telling them what to do. Advocate Caroline explains, “We listen and answer their questions so they can come to a decision that is right for them. Whether they want to remain in their relationship, pursue legal options, or follow up with social workers, we will support them in their decision.”

“We are there for support,” Fauzia emphasizes. “It is not up to us to tell them what to do.”

In addition to this immediate crisis response, WCCI also provides social workers for long-term survivor care, and community outreach programs designed to reduce the stigma surrounding domestic violence. Too often, survivors of domestic violence internalize society’s messages about domestic violence and carry a burden of shame, believing that what happened to them is too humiliating to share with others. It is also common for survivors to worry that they might have been partially responsible for the violence done to them, especially if they have chosen to remain in their relationship.

These beliefs contribute to a dangerous cycle in which women feel too isolated to seek help and are further trapped within their abusive relationships. Georgie, who volunteers with WCCI both as a crisis advocate and as a speaker, visits schools, civic clubs, and medical groups to raise awareness about available support and to challenge many of these common misconceptions.

“There are a lot of myths about domestic violence,” she says. “People tend to believe it is something that only happens elsewhere, never in their own community. Or they think it only happens to uneducated or low-income women. But the truth is domestic violence happens to women from all walks of life.”

M-J nods. “I’ve done this work on three continents; violence against women is not confined to any country or culture, it is global.”

“There is also the myth that when it comes to domestic violence, women should find it easy to simply leave,” Georgie continues. “But that’s actually the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship.”

There is a moment of somber silence and then M-J speaks up, slipping into trainer-mode. “And why is that the case?” she asks her team. “Because that is when the abuser feels like he’s losing control,” she says, answering her own question. “Remember, it’s always about control.”

Amy, another advocate, says that calls to WCCI’s crisis line peak between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. “That’s when husbands are at work and women have the privacy to call. During the time we talk to them, all we can hope is that we’ve planted a seed that will help them in the future.”

Advocate Tameen adds, “The women who contact us often feel very isolated, but when they speak with us they know they are no longer alone.”

Fostering this sense of community is an important part of the WCCI ethos. In addition to crisis response and education, the team also offers community programs, which are open to all women, and include ESL classes and art and creative writing workshops. WCCI’s ESL tutor Hilary says, “The classes create a sense of community for those who attend, which can have a big impact on participants.”

Something that impresses me about WCCI’s framework is how much thought is given not only to the survivors, but also to the advocates themselves. Advocates are contacted after every crisis line shift by one of WCCI’s social workers for a debriefing — whether they have taken any calls or not. M-J explains that this is an important part of offsetting any vicarious trauma volunteers may experience from working so closely with violent situations.

At the end of our meeting, I ask M-J about her goals for WCCI in the coming years and her eyes light up. “The dream is to expand into other countries in the area. Bahrain is really leading the way with this; in 2015 domestic violence was criminalized and now we have the first crisis intervention program in the region. I hope other countries will follow suit.”

Too often, survivors of domestic violence internalize society’s messages about domestic violence and carry a burden of shame.

With this goal in mind, I ask if she has any advice for others wishing to start a program of their own. “Be prepared to work really hard,” she answers with a smile. “Surround yourself with smart, committed people who will help you along the way because you can’t do it alone!”

Ramadan begins in just a few days, and as we say our goodbyes and head out into the sweltering heat, M-J and her advocates are discussing plans to go jellabiya shopping in preparation for WCCI’s upcoming ghabga — the traditional celebratory gathering of the holy month. As I watch the women talk and laugh, it’s M-J’s advice in action; a team of dedicated women from all walks of life, united to fight the scourge of domestic abuse, in a world that too often ignores it.

“Half the world’s population is women and one third of all women will experience abuse at some point in their life,” M-J points out. “They deserve to have support. And while the majority of law and policymakers around the world are men, women and all feminists have to stick together to support each other and ensure that support is available when needed.”

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