Benjamin Netanyahu AP 21.11.2010
Benjamin Netanyahu during weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2010. Photo by AP
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On this day a year ago - the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited a shelter for battered women in Jerusalem and promised to earmark another NIS 5 million to fight domestic abuse. A year later, not one shekel has arrived, and the lack of funding is forcing battered women to return to their violent spouses.

An umbrella organization comprised of 10 different groups that operate shelters was recently established with the goal of improving service to these women and their families. Ronit Arenfreund-Cohen, who heads WIZO's Department for the Advancement of the Status of Women and serves as chairwoman of the umbrella group, wrote Netanyahu this week to remind him of his promise, and of the women's desperate plight.

"The terrible murders of the last few months, which demonstrate the scope of domestic violence and the great need for professional work to cope with this plague," she wrote, show that "keeping this promise is critical for these women in advance of their integration into a normative life and will benefit their environment and society as a whole."

Of the NIS 5 million Netanyahu promised, NIS 2 million was to be given as grants to women leaving the shelters, to enable them to rent an apartment and finance other initial expenses necessary to reenter the world. The remainder was to go toward building new shelters and renovating existing ones.

Arenfreund-Cohen said the grants are vital, because most battered women have no assets of their own: Not only do they usually have to leave everything behind when they flee their violent husbands, but the husbands often run up debts while their wives are in the shelter, and the wives are legally liable for these debts.

"We proposed a bill to pay them income support, which would slightly improve their situation in the shelters, but even this modest proposal wasn't approved," she said. That made Netanyahu's promise all the more important. "But it, too, has not been kept to this day, so at the moment, women who leave the shelters survive with great difficulty, and some of them return to their violent husbands because of their economic difficulties."

Queried by Haaretz, the Prime Minister's Office responded that Netanyahu "instructed the finance minister this evening to find a budget for helping battered women by this Sunday's cabinet meeting, as he promised a year ago during a tour of a shelter for battered women. Netanyahu said it was necessary to find an immediate solution, because he had not been aware until now that his promise had not yet been kept."

So far this year, 18 women have been killed by their partners. That is the highest number since 2004, and double last year's figure of nine. This year's victims include three immigrants from the former Soviet Union, three immigrants from Ethiopia, seven Arabs and a foreign worker.

WIZO estimates that some 200,000 Israeli women and 600,000 children suffer physical or emotional violence. Over the last few months, calls to its hotline for battered women have jumped by 30 percent, it said, while the Na'amat women's organization reported a 50 percent increase in calls to its hotline.

At the end of 2009, 748 women and 1,059 children were living in the 13 shelters run by the Social Affairs Ministry, that ministry said. This compares to 692 women and 1,016 children in 2008.

Of these women, 70 percent reported suffering emotional or verbal violence, 63 percent suffered physical violence, 47 percent suffered economic violence and 24 percent sexual violence. Most had been abused for five years or more before turning to a shelter.

More than half of them came from minority groups, with 16 percent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 11 percent immigrants from Ethiopia and 28 percent Arabs.