One Young Woman’s Fight for Justice

Waad Hayef Alhlaili. Photo: UN Women/Emad Karim

Twenty-two year-old Waad Hayef Alhlaili could never get used to the idea that a woman who faced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of her husband might go to the police, only to be sent back home to her abuser.

“This has to end now,” says Alhlaili. After a pause, and with a deep breath, she says, “the challenge is big, but violence against women is on the rise.”

There is no official data on the number of women who have asked the police to intervene in situations of domestic violence in Kuwait.

However, a study released earlier this year by Kuwait University showed that 40.2% of 1,071 women interviewed in the 30-39 age bracket had been victim to various forms of physical violence carried out by their spouses.

In addition, the study showed that women with higher educational degrees and higher salaries were increasingly more victimized.

Alhlaili was spurred to tackle the issue of spousal abuse after participating in the UNDP Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) in Kuwait City last year, organized with the support of the Kuwaiti government.

She left the programme with an urge to use the knowledge she had acquired through discussions with like-minded youth. However, Alhlaili admits that sometimes she feels frustrated that young women are not taken seriously by male decision-makers.

YLP is an initiative that supports young people to become engaged citizens and innovative problem-solvers.

The program is funded and coordinated by UNDP Regional Program for Arab States, and is implemented in partnership with UN Women, and the Office of the Secretary General's Envoy on Youth.

The 2016 iteration of YLP focused on various topics, including gender equality, good governance, social cohesion, and economic empowerment.

Today, UNDP is gearing up for the 2017 round of YLP targeting 1000 youth across the Arab region, building on the success of the programme’s first two phases.

"This year, we aim to encourage youth participants to build upon and accelerate last year's ideas on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” says the Amman-based Khaled Abdelshafi, Director of the UNDP Regional Hub for Arab States.

Empowered women

“I knew I had the support from the community on social media – now I am ready, and want to create some change, in the present and future, that will never be forgotten, and will keep our women safe” Alhlaili says enthusiastically.

As a gender equality advocate, she is aiming to create the “Iwaa” (Shelter) Center, which will help victimized women feel safe, secure, and protected from spousal abuse and violence.

“The idea is to inform, train and empower the women, so that they can maintain their dignity and take care of themselves economically in the future” explains Alhlaili.

In addition to working on making the Iwaa Center a reality, Alhlaili is also a microbiology student at Kuwait University and is committed to various social causes.

On a weekly basis, Alhlaili fills her bag with all her paperwork on the Iwaa Center, and heads off to different parts of Kuwait City to lobby officials.

Some doors have opened for her project, while others remain firmly shut.

In a major victory, Alhlaili convinced her government to donate land to create Kuwait’s first center for victimized women.

“I am excited about it – but that is not enough – we are looking for partners to build the place, but also to build a strong partnership, and support, for vulnerable women” she said, while getting ready for a public event.

Alhlaili says that the need to establish such a center is particularly urgent in Kuwait, which has no centers for victimized women, while Saudi Arabia has 13 and the United Arab Emirates has three.

Shift in life

When Alhlaili was selected as one of 12 YLP youth from 11 countries who would travel to the UN HQ in New York to participate in the Global Youth Forum, she realized that she was not alone in the challenges she faced.

Through the programme, she met like-minded Kuwaiti people who strengthened her determination.

Furthermore, traveling to New York has given her a different perspective on spousal abuse and enabled her to view it as a problem that extends across borders.

Alhlaili’s latest initiative, called “Ismani” (Arabic for “listen to me”), employed young Kuwaiti volunteers to reach out to victimized women. Together with her friends, she posted a phone number that victimized women could call for counseling– the first week, she received 11 phone calls requesting help.

The environment for Alhlaili is now more encouraging than ever before, with Kuwait having been selected last month by the Council of Arab Ministers for Youth and Sport as “The Capital of Arab Youth 2017.”

“Shut doors will not put me off – I will continue till we turn this dream into a reality,” she added.

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