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Algeria: Talk as therapy

06-03-2003 Feature

“Shut it. Your opinion doesn’t count. I’ll do whatever I want with you …” But Zahra talks, despite her brother’s threats.

The Algerian Red Crescent (the CRA, or Croissant Rouge Algérien ) has always helped the most deprived women in society, by providing the vocational training they need to find a job. Over the last ten years, however, the CRA has had to start helping women who are suffering because of the rising tide of violence in Algeria.

Following a series of visits to training workshops in the remotest parts of the country, the CRA has set up self-help groups, with the aid of the ICRC, to provide women with psychological support.

The groups, which are led by people trained in psychology, are an opportunity for women to share their fears and their suffering. They may have suffered violence perpetrated by a husband, another member of their family, their community or terrorists, and they may have been the victims of sexual assault or rape. As well as sharing the sufferings of the past, the women can start to talk about their hopes for the future.

Zahra (18) lost her father and another member of her family in an attack. When her father died, the family lost the respect of the neighbours, and became the target of threats and humiliation. Her brother attacks her verbally and physically, seeing himself as her guardian, with total power over her. He claims that if she gets harassed on the street then ‘she asked for it’, and deserves to be beaten, humiliated and kept at home.

Selma (17) is the victim of violence from her own family. The CRA sewing classes she has been attending for the last four months have given her a chance to share her experiences with a self-help group. The problems started when her moth er was kidnapped and raped, ‘bringing shame’ on the family. Rape brings dishonour on the victim’s parents, grandparents and children, and indeed on the whole community. The mother’s disgrace is passed on to her daughters and granddaughters. So Selma has been locked up, humiliated and beaten by her uncles and brothers, simply for being a woman.

Breaking down the taboo surrounding rape and sexual harassment takes a long time. And it takes a long time to help these women build up the confidence to talk and to bring their suffering out into the open. To be condemned and rejected by family and community is the hardest part of the burden they bear.

And yet the CRA personnel involved with the self-help groups are struck by the courage of the participants, and by their confidence in the future. The groups give the women the space they need to talk, to listen and to be listened to, a circle within which to bring past sufferings into the open and an opportunity to help each other.