Friday, March 12, 2010

Syrian Nun Receives International Women of Courage Award

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the 2010 International Women of Courage Award Ceremony at the US Department of State. Among those honored was a Good Shepherd sister from Syria, Sr. Marie Claude Naddaf. This biography from the State Department Web site explains how this woman religious opened her heart -- and her convent -- to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

When Marie Claude Naddaf assumed the role of Mother Superior at the Good Shepherd Convent in Damascus in 1994, Syria did not offer social services for women suffering domestic violence, homelessness, or trafficking. Women trafficked into prostitution were imprisoned for months on end, held in jail with criminals until they could be deported. Sister Marie Claude set out to create a range of services for women through her Damascus Convent, and, in so doing, gradually created a partnership with the Syrian government on tackling violence against women.

In 1996, Sister Marie Claude and the convent opened Syria's first facility, the “Oasis Shelter,” for victims of trafficking and domestic violence. In the years since it opened, the success of the shelter inspired the launch of another facility – with full government cooperation – specifically for survivors of domestic violence, and a third specifically for those affected by trafficking.

Sister Marie Claude launched Syria’s first women’s telephone hotline, which is attached to a new emergency shelter where women can get counseling, legal advice, and temporary shelter 24 hours a day. She won the right to have women in police custody released to a shelter if it was determined that the women were victims of trafficking. In 2009, this agreement resulted in more than 20 South Asian women trafficked into Syria for domestic work being released into the custody of a shelter – a visible symbol of the government’s transformation from thinking of trafficking survivors as criminals in need of punishment to victims in need of services.

Sister Marie Claude has also pressed for better treatment of female prisoners. She established a special nursery at the prison in Damascus, and began a vocational education program to eliminate illiteracy and provide training for skills that will prepare the women for successful reintegration and better futures upon their release. Along the way, Sister Marie Claude also trained a dozens of committed nuns and activists in shelter administration, outreach, education programming, and more.

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