A veteran campaigner for womenís rights, Marlene Bertrand has received numerous awards in her native Canada in recognition of her tireless work in the field of family violence prevention. She came to Damascus last week at the invitation of the National Association for the Development of the Role of Women, to lead a seminar on the logistics of running a women's shelter. Among those attending were employees and volunteers from a new women's shelter that has recently opened in Damascus. We talked to her about her work, and the obstacles faced by women's rights campaigners both in Syria and worldwide.
How did you get started in your work?
I started doing this work in the early 1980s. In an informal way prior to that, I had been one of those women in the community that was a natural helper and I had done a little bit of informal work with children that had come out of abused homes. After that, my husband was transferred to another part of the country and for the first time in my life I found myself unemployed. I got the opportunity to work in an organization that was working with woman. The organization had been recognising that more and more of the women coming to them were fleeing abusive relationships. So initially I was hired for 20 weeks to develop a program. Then a few weeks into the work they asked me if I would stay on a permanent basis and set up a womenís shelter. It was a significant challenge because there werenít many womenís shelters so we didnít have a model that we could copy. So we began doing the work and lobbying the government for financial assistance.
Have you worked in any other countries besides Canada?
Iíve done a lot of work in St. Lucia, and Iím proud of the work that weíve done there. Iíve also done some consultation in Mexico and Trinidad. Iíve been passionate all my life about womenís equality, and shelters are a particular passion. So whenever Iím travelling, in Canada or elsewhere, on holiday or working or whatever, I always try and see the local shelter.
What expectations did you have before coming to Syria?
Well, I had never been in the Middle East before so I didnít really know what to expect.
But my experiences in every country that Iíve gone have shown me that everyone is different. Everyone is at a different level of understanding the issue and has different plans for how theyíre going to address the issue, different expectations about the role that I would play. I remember immediately thinking that this group was quite far and quite sophisticated judging by the agenda, this issues that they listed that they would like addressed. There are countries that Iíve been to where they havenít known what they donít know, and it was obvious to me that the women here in Damascus knew what they needed to know in order to run the shelter. Women that are very knowledgeable, and Iíve been really impressed by the women here- passionate, good experiences, strong commitment, good ideas. You see that around the table and you see it one on one when you talk to them about their plans, how they plan to lobby. Theyíre courageous women, and they have great vision.
Do you think there are any specific problems working for women's rights in country like Syria which is more traditional, religious and patriarchal than countries like Canada?
The issues that you raise are issues that present themselves in every country. You talk about a patriarchal society; Canadaís come from that, it was traditionally very patriarchal. When I started doing this work in small rural farming communities in Canada, you came across very traditional, patriarchal attitudes. And traditionally weíve had strong religious beliefs that women shouldnít divorce. I once talked to a religious leader in Canada about a woman working with our shelter. Her husband had taken a brick and bashed out her front teeth, and the priest told me that she must not leave him, and the ill-treatment that she was suffering at the hands of her husband would be punished by God. But if she broke the marriage vows and divorced him then she too would be punished by God, and he couldnít condone that. Iím not suggesting we donít have challenges here, but just that patriarchal thinking isnít exclusive to the Middle East. One of the women who is attending today told me sheís had the opportunity to talk about some of the senior religious leaders and they seemed really open to discussion. Having said that, something I find overwhelming is the issue of honour killing. Itís an extremely difficult issue, and it goes beyond simply offering women a safe place to go, itís a really tough problem that has to be tackled.
How would you respond to those who would suggest that westerners working for women's issues in the Middle East may have political motives?
I donít think Iím really qualified to answer that, Iím making no judgements about your country, but Iím a strong believer in equality between men and women, and Iím working now with an organization whose purpose is to achieve equality of women. That's what weíre working for in Canada, and I believe that this needs to happen everywhere. I believe thereís an unequal distribution of power and wealth that puts women at a disadvantage, and this is something we need to address all around the world.
Concerning the new women's centre that has just opened in Damascus, what do you feel it is lacking at the moment? How could it be improved?
I think it needs a lot of support. It needs financial donations, so they can support women after they leave. They say "it takes a village to raise a childĒ, and that really rings true here. The whole community needs to support a shelter in order to make it effective. The police need to cooperate; they need to be able to respond quickly and to ensure the security of the shelter. Also, the shelter could really benefit from more volunteers. There are loads of great opportunities for people to learn and grow and contribute to their communities by contributing their time and skills to the shelter, either by baking food, donating basic goods, books, or volunteering to play with the children. There are lots of great volunteer opportunities for students in particular. As well as helping them grow and develop as people, it's also good professionally, and looks great on a CV. So I think that should be encouraged.
What do you expect to happen after this workshop?
Well, I think one of the benefits that usually comes out of a conference or workshop is the networking that goes on. Not everybody knew everybody, so there are new connections to make, old connections that can be strengthenedÖ Sometimes organizations end up dealing with the same families, so building a closer working relationship between organizations is very positive. Iíve been talking about our Canadian experience, not as instruction but just to give ideas and answer questions. But clearly the National Association are made up of very strong determined women with concrete ideas and visions. So as a woman who has done this work for over 25 years, I really think theyíre on the right track. I admire very much the work that theyíre doing.
Will there be further communication in the future?
I believe thatís the plan. Iíve had a number of women who have said that theyíd like to stay connected, and Iíd like to see how they grow and learn, and what works for them. Itís a great learning opportunity for me, and Iíve learnt a lot of things since coming here. Some things they do differently to how we do things, and Iíve learnt the reasons why they need to.
Do you think you'll return to Syria?
Itís certainly a possibility... Iíd love to come back at some point and see how theyíre working.
But although I do this voluntarily, it does cost a lot to bring me here. However, if people think it would benefit them then Iíd be happy to return. But in any case, theyíre strong women and theyíre really moving forward. Iím confident theyíll do a really good job.
Do you have any advice for those working for the advancement of women's rights in Syria?
I don't think I have any special advice. I wish them well and I think theyíre off to a great start. I said just a few minutes ago in the workshop that some days you can become very discouraged, some days you forget how far youíve come and you just see how far there is to go. I think we have a long way to go in Canada before we can eradicate violence against women and the attitudes that allow it to happen. But on those difficult days we have to remind ourselves how far weíve come. For instance, the services that have improved, the number of dollars and resources that weíve put in, training with police, judges and court workers. Weíve come quite a way, and weíll continue pushing, and itíll be a younger group of women taking the baton from the older generation. But women in this kind of work, we have a sisterhood. I felt an immediate affinity for the women I met here; weíre all fighting for the same cause.
Violence against women is in my opinion a human rights issue. I wish that world leaders would see it as a human rights issue and respond to it as such. Itís only by protecting the rights of others that we can protect ourselves.... Itís an issue for us as a world. Research shows that 1 in 5 women are in an abusive relationship- these numbers arenít acceptable. What else would be happening where 1 in 5 was affected? If it was a medical phenomenon, theyíd have the best scientists on the case, and millions of dollars poured into research and preventionÖ People would be discussing the effects of the problem, the cost of the problem.
Obviously, violence against women is a primarily a social problem, and it destroys individual lives, but it also has huge economic costs. The costs to social services, the cost to the police, court cases, the child welfare system. And this is just one of the reasons to tackle the issue
So I would like us to raise the profile of this issue, so people realise the true cost of the problem on every level.
By: matthew mcnaugh