A group of women abandoned by their families and housed in a shelter in Benghazi have been inspired by Libya’s revolt to push for personal freedoms in a society where they have few.
Known as “foundlings” because no one will care for them and they are not independent in the eyes of authorities, the twelve are banned from leaving a fenced compound without an escort. Officials say they fear for the safety of women on their own.
The group, mostly in their twenties, want more independence and better living conditions, and have now started to protest about their life as second-class citizens.
“It’s about respect — officials speak to us like we’re nothing and call us street people,” said Hind el-Huni. “We want freedom too.”
The 23-year-old has spent six of the last 10 years in the shelter in this eastern city after fleeing a brother and father with alcohol problems.
Police can detain people found on the street in Libya, including “foundlings” who leave the shelter. Amid the rapid changes of the post-Gaddafi era, the women hope to gain more rights despite their classification as orphans, divorcees, or illegitimate children.
Intisa Mustapha, a lawyer who has lived among the group at the shelter for a month for what she says are personal reasons, says the social system must change.
“Some try to kill themselves, others attempt escape,” the 38-year-old said. “They are not allowed to live outside if they don’t have a home or job.
“We have a problem with the administration — the whole group is treated as inferior people. Some arrive bearing signs of abuse from men.”
Living two and four to a room, the women say their monthly stipend of 130 dinars ($106) was cut during the uprising against dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and their food reduced to mainly eggs and cheese.
Administrators say they are treated very well, although some admit corruption has slowed the payment of benefits. Libya’s interim government says funds are not available for now.
“These girls are a problem,” said Souhair el-Barghathe, the home’s former director who resigned in protest at the disorder in state administration as the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) struggles to bring order to Libya.
“They live in five-star conditions but since the revolution everyone feels they deserve something,” she said.
“They don’t want to clean up after themselves anymore and the views of social workers are ignored… Some have also had problems in the courts.”
The shelter is a branch of Benghazi’s House for Social Protection, which provides homes for some 200 people, mostly orphans who are minors but also adults with nowhere else to go.
In a conservative society where women are rarely alone, most of the women do not want to leave the safety of the shelter but want more freedom to come and go as they please.
Two have small children living with them, and one says she is afraid to take her sick toddler to the hospital for fear he will be taken away from her.
The women fear their difficulties will be forgotten by the new government following the sudden end of Gaddafi’s rule.
Outside the offices of the NTC in Benghazi, the birthplace of Libya’s uprising, people queue daily to present grievances and demand funds for a variety of reasons.
During Reuters’ visit to the House for Social Protection, one man burst into the main office, shouting and tearing at his shirt to show frustration at social payments he called a pittance. Its employees sighed with resignation.
Khloud Magrehi, a 24-year-old who lives at the shelter after being disowned by her family, said the Libyan justice system is harsh on people it considers undesirables.
“I’d like to study, but I can’t have a life,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I had a pushing fight with someone and a prosecutor ordered me into a dark cell the size of a closet for 12 days, with no change of clothes or toilet.”
At least half of the twelve say their lives were better when Gaddafi was in power. Above all, they want to have a hand in finding solutions to their troubles.
“I don’t like what the prosecutors tell me,” said Hind el-Huni. “They said I was old enough to get married, so if I really wanted to leave (the shelter) I should find a husband.”