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In Jordan, there are few shelters for female victims of violence. For women who have been threatened with 'honour' crimes, there is often nowhere to go. Many end up in protective custody, like Aseel, who spent months in prison after suffering abuse by her family. Photo: Christopher Herwig
In Jordan, there are few shelters for female victims of violence. For women who have been threatened with 'honour' crimes, there is often nowhere to go. Many end up in protective custody, like Aseel, who spent months in prison after suffering abuse by her family. Photo: Christopher Herwig

Marriage – a way out of prison

Aseel was 14 the first time she married. Looking back now she says she wants to forget everything: the neglect, the violent abuse and, most of all, the long months in prison as a protective custody inmate.

The expression on Aseel’s face is resolutely blank as she tells her story. Speaking in short, quiet sentences, she describes how she lived in poverty while her first husband spent his earnings elsewhere.

“He had other women and didn’t care about me and the children. He kept us in bad conditions.”

After eight years Aseel divorced him and went to live with her stepmother and brothers, but her situation didn’t improve.

“They treated me badly and beat me,” she says. Desperate to escape the abuse, Aseel fled.

Running away is dangerous

Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Sigi Sigi runs the Arab Regional Resource Center on Violence Against Women.

Sigi is an important actor regionally and conducts training sessions for grassroots organisations nationally.

The work and campaigning by Sigi have raised the level of awareness and the debate about the honour culture and violence against women in Jordan.

In Jordan, running away can have severe consequences for women. Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation Sisterhood Is Global Institute’s Jordan chapter (Sigi) deals with the problem daily.

“This is where the story often begins; when the father or husband goes to the police station to report her as absent,” says Lubna Dawany, president of Sigi.

There are a few shelters for female victims of violence in Jordan but they don’t take high-risk cases.

“She ends up in prison because they know that if they return her to the family she will be killed,” Dawany adds.

Calls for legal reform

In the first 11 months of 2016, 38 women and girls were murdered in Jordan for reasons related to so-called family honour. It’s more than double the number of these crimes committed in 2015 and has triggered renewed calls for legal reform from women’s rights defenders.

In particular, activists are spotlighting Articles 340 and 98 of Jordan’s Penal Code, which outline grounds for a reduced sentence when the perpetrator murders a partner or family member caught committing adultery, or carries out the crime in a ‘fit of fury’.

“These legal escape routes need to be closed,” says Asma Khader, executive director of Sigi. The organisation was part of a network of NGOs behind a new petition to “Stop murder crimes committed against women and girls”, launched ahead of the16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign in November.

17 years in prison

The petition, which will be presented to the government next year, also demand an end to the detention of women for protective purposes. Under Jordan’s 1954 Crime Prevention Law, women deemed to be at risk of ‘honour’ crimes can be held in custody for months or even years.

Aseel spent seven months in the Juweida women’s correctional and rehabilitation centre. At first, prison seemed preferable to suffering abuse at home.

“At least I was safe, but it was always cold and there weren’t enough blankets. There was nothing to do so I just worried all the time.”

Reconciliation programme

Through its ‘Access to Justice for Women’ programme, which is supported by Kvinna till Kvinna, Sigi provides legal, financial and psychosocial support to these women while working with government authorities to secure their release.

Where possible, Sigi staff work to reconcile women with their families. “We have a lot of cases where the families don’t want the woman killed, they want someone to bring them together and create peace. But they don’t know how to go about it,” says Dawany.

However, there have been instances of women harmed after leaving custody. Twice, a woman has even been killed at the police station, says Khader.

“It’s very risky to release them to live with their families and they don’t have the resources and capabilities to live on their own.”

Marriage  a way out 

With so few alternatives, many women find the safest way to leave the prison is through marriage. “This is their only way to be free, even though freedom is the basic right of any person,” Kader says.

Aseel had a friend in prison who offered to make an introduction to a man willing to marry her. “I had no choice. The option was to be married or stay in prison and I preferred to marry.”

She says she’s happy now and her new husband treats her well, but she shudders to recall her ordeal.

“I’m telling it now because I want people to know what happened and I don’t want any other women to suffer like I have.”

Olivia Cuthbert

Updated in: 2017-07-11