Iran: Halfway Houses Try to Help Runaway Girls
By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel
Radio Free Europe
Prague, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Runaway girls are not an image usually
associated with the Islamic Republic, which places a high value on public
modesty and decorum for young women.
But like many other countries, Iran has its share of teenagers who take
to the streets as their only refuge from problems at home. They become
voluntary outcasts of society, frightened, and looking for ways to survive
in Tehran, where the size of the city preserves their anonymity.
The fortunate ones find their way to a network of shelters for runaway
girls in the capital and other major cities operated by municipal officials.
Since the shelters were established in 1998, some 450 girls have passed
through them. Often the shelters are the only safety net to keep the girls
from being exploited as prostitutes or turning to crime.
Our correspondent spoke by telephone with the operator of one of the
halfway houses in Tehran, called "Kahneh Rayhaneh" [or "Little
Basil Leaf House."] Mojgan Shirazi, the house's deputy director, is
a family counselor and sociologist who works there full-time.
Shirazi says the girls are either from broken homes with stepparents
who abuse them or they are from homes where one or both parents are drug
addicts and have turned the children into go-betweens with drug dealers.
She says that in some of the homes where parents are addicts, the girls
say the smoke from drugs being inhaled is so strong their only refuge is
to hide under blankets to find a space to breathe. Shirazi says that faced
with such situations, or parents who continually fight with one another,
the response of the children is to flee.
Poverty is also a major factor in creating problems for these young
women. Some families in small towns or rural areas seek to marry off their
daughters at a young age to escape the cost of supporting them.
"In some cities the reason is arranged marriages. Parents want
to get out of feeding another mouth, they want to marry these girls off
to either men decades older than the girls or even to addicts."
Sometimes, the girls flee to the capital drawn by their own dreams of
joining the glittering life displayed on television and finding jobs to
support themselves. But often they find that a trap awaits them -- in exchange
for employment, they encounter sexual demands.
"Also, girls from provinces in search of jobs and the glitter displayed
on television come to Tehran, the capital city, and wherever they seek
employment, they have to fulfill inappropriate requirements."
Shirazi says that runaway girls she has worked with range in age from
12 to 19. The vast majority -- 90 percent -- have no criminal records.
Only 2 percent have records for drug use or possession.
A few of the girls seek help voluntarily. But most are found by social
workers who search the streets for them. Shirazi says:
"Ten percent of these girls come on their own initiative. Ninety
percent are collected by our social workers placed in various train and
bus terminals going from or coming into Tehran."
The halfway houses offer the girls and their parents psychological counseling
and try to reunite them. The center where she works has the capacity to
accommodate up to 40 people staying for varying lengths of time.
"We treat them through various psychological therapies, summon
their parents, put them through counseling, then release them. We keep
them under strict observation, visit them bi-monthly, until they reach
Shirazi says that the halfway houses are gradually reducing the number
of runaway girls on the street. She says that the houses opened three years
ago to deal with what officials considered a crisis of girls leaving their
homes because of even minor disputes with parents. And she puts part of
the blame on imported videos, which she says have helped to cause children
to increasingly challenge their parents.
"At the beginning -- three years ago -- because of satellite TV,
videos, and other media that actually taught the youth how to be aggressive,
[and] with the simplest disagreements to fight their parents, the number
was rapidly increasing. That is why the idea of such centers as 'Kahneh
Rayhaneh' was conceived."
But if the number of runaway girls is declining, the roots of the problem
still remain. Iran has an extremely large population of young people, with
some 60 percent under the age of 21. Also, the country's economy is struggling
against double-digit inflation and unemployment.
Many young people complain that the country's strict Islamic moral codes
limit their opportunities for entertainment and self-expression. Reformists
are calling for greater social freedoms, but those calls continue to be
opposed by Islamic hardliners.