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Iran: Halfway Houses Try to Help Runaway Girls

By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel

Like many countries, Iran has problems with runaway children. Some are girls who take to the streets of Tehran to escape abusive parents. The lucky ones end up in halfway houses which seek to protect them from drifting into crime or prostitution. RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin spoke with the operator of one halfway house to learn more about the girls and efforts to help them.

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 normalcy."

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.