Children held by their loving SOS Mother
SOS Children's Villages supports women and their families on their paths to becoming independent::
Women often carry the main burden of bringing up their children, looking after their house and managing family life. If they are single and have no financial stability, they are often consigned to poverty. Many women in the industrialised countries of the west belong to this risk group, and single mothers in developing countries are often completely isolated. These women have little or no hope of help.
SOS Children's Villages is increasingly active in supporting families in Middle Eastern countries Egypt and Sudan in applying the classic model of out-of-home care for children. Since mothers with children are primarily the ones who are pushed to the fringes of society, the various programmes place an emphasis on this target group.
The fate of women and girls is often alarmingly similar: the discrimination that women suffer as adults can often be traced back to their childhood and inevitably continues into adulthood. Regional traits, social and political conditions also mean that women and girls are exposed to additional risks. A tour of Sudan, Egypt and Lebanon reveals this exposure.
The heat is stifling in Abu Shouk refugee camp in Darfur, a crisis area in Sudan. There is hardly a soul in sight, other than a child playing in shabby clothes. The mothers and children have presumably left the camp in search of firewood. For single mothers in particular, gathering wood is a humble way of making ends meet for their family, but it puts them in great danger. Sometimes the women do not return. They are either never found or found dead. Outside the camp, the women are easy prey for murderers, rapists and thieves.
Many of the women in the enormous refugee camp are single. They are either widows, divorcees or have simply been abandoned. They often have multiple children. Mariam is one of these mothers. Her husband was killed and she was left with their seven children. Her situation is not as bad as that of other women. Mariam works as a cleaner at the SOS family centre in the camp. "I have to work. Life here is very harsh," she says. But she is lucky, as she does not have to leave the camp.
To create opportunities for the women, a third SOS Family Centre directed by SOS Children's Villages in Abu Shouk now offers craft courses for single mothers. These women learn how to weave baskets and how to produce other commodities that they can sell in the camp. Some work as babysitters at the SOS nursery, whilst others cook for the children. Many of the women undergo therapy at the SOS Family Centres, which mainly provide for psychologically-scarred children and women.
"Some women thought that people would consider them crazy if they accepted psychiatric help. Therapy remains a taboo for many people," asserts Jihad, the technical director of the SOS Family Centre in Abu Shouk. "In the past, they would not have brought their children here, because the thought that their children could have psychological problems was unbearable." Many of them now come to the centres, both children and women, to deal with their dreadful experiences of war, to get on with their lives to have a future.
"What would you like to talk about today?" asks SOS social worker Ghada during the women's discussion group at the SOS Social Centre in Umbada, 20 km from the Sudanese capital Khartoum. "I would like to know why female circumcision is harmful," answers one of the women. The women gather regularly for what is known as a "Coffee Party", which is actually a time when they have a chance to exchange thoughts and opinions. Ghada describes the various forms of female circumcision with diagrams and illustrations and describes the drastic and irreversible mental and physical damage. It became clear from the discussion that followed how difficult it is to confront practices that are socially enforced, even if they are extremely dangerous and degrading.
"What should we say? We haven't got anything to say. We haven't got an opinion," says one of the women sadly. "It is not socially acceptable for women not to be circumcised," offers another. Ghada tries to discourage this line of thought, but wonders how much success she will have. The euphemistic tahara ("rinsing") - which is female circumcision - is still performed out on almost all young girls in Sudan. Ghada is able to talk of the success in preventing one circumcision through targeted explanation. In addition to female circumcision, other topics relating to women are discussed at the SOS Social Centre in Umbada, such as protective sex, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
"I found out about the SOS Social Centre from a friend. I was blacking out and getting cramps and had to take neuroleptics. I was really depressed and couldn't look after my children. And then at some point I heard about SOS Children's Villages," recalls Basima about her troubled past. Basima, who is now in her forties, was just 23 when her husband died and she was left on her own with their two small children. She started to go to the SOS Social Centre in Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1990s; she initially just went occasionally, but she then began to go more frequently. "I had no idea how to do anything. I had never worked before and had never done anything with my hands." She now loves craftwork, which she learnt at the centre. Basima is financially independent, as her children Hana and Sami are self-sufficient.
Fatima suffers from the stigma of a being a divorced woman who had to beg for help with her four children. Interest in her body was often greater than the desire to help her children. She has been going to the SOS Social Centre in Ksarnaba, Lebanon: "For the first time in my life, I am not ashamed of my situation; instead, I am proud of the fact that I can lead a dignified life."
There are many other women like Basima and Fatima, who had limited opportunities for education or training as girls, who have very few rights, and who are fully dependent on their husbands and families. If their husbands stop providing for the family, they often lose their social status and any form of support.
Some of the women have to start again from scratch, like Feriyal from Cairo. The mother of two was left by her husband; her own family refused to help her at all. It was not until she turned to SOS Children's Villages Egypt and the local NGO Asdiqaa Al-Mawhoubeen that she was able to make a new start. Feriyal obtained a loan, which enabled her to open a small kiosk. Her children were able to go to school. She also kept chickens; in time this brave, enterprising woman was able to provide for her family in another way. Once things started to improve for her and her children, she even supported those relatives who had refused to help her. "My life has changed dramatically," said Feriyal. "I needed help and didn't have anyone to turn to. Now, I control my own life and I can even help others. And my children have a future."
Mothers with disabled children are a target group of the family strengthening programme in Cairo. A group of volunteers has been providing care for disabled children from poor families in the Zawya Hamra district for the past 14 years. The volunteers are mothers who have been in the same situation. SOS Children's Villages helps these committed women share their knowledge and experience with others in the same situation and helps them get over the hurdles of everyday life.
There are currently twelve family strengthening programmes in the Middle East, Egypt and Sudan, which are helping more than 4,500 people (women with children are given priority). The stories of Mariam, Basima, Fatima and Feriyal show us how hard women must fight to survive. The stories also show that these women, when given the opportunity, discover skills and strengths within themselves.