By Jim Muir in Tehran
December 14, 2000
There is growing
concern in Iran over the rising number of young girls who run away
About 900 have
been taken in hand by the authorities this year in Tehran alone,
where runaways are believed to be among at least 30 young women
raped and murdered in the past few months.
It is one of a
number of burning social problems the Iranian government is
starting to address.
Tehran's big bus
terminals are often the first stop for runaway girls coming from
This is the seedy
side of life in Iran, where drug abuse and prostitution are
constantly on the increase.
On waste ground
near one bus station I found heroin junkies shooting up quite
It is a situation
fraught with dangers for young, vulnerable girls running away from
But efforts are
being made to save the girls from being sucked into the seamy
Jamileh Shahbaz works from the bus terminal, trying to spot
runaway girls before the gangs get to them.
that when they first come here they are very upset and agitated.
They don't know where they've
come to, besides
being away from their families," Jamileh says.
many questions going on in their minds. They are worried. And of
course they're very unhappy."
After an initial
questioning, Jamileh decides whether to try to reunite the runaway
girls with their families immediately.
If not, they are
taken to Reyhaneh House. It is a special centre, funded by the
Tehran municipality, for girls with problems. Here, they get
professional advice and counselling - and the comfort of other
girls with similar problems.
from Tehran has a violent mother, divorced from her drug-addict
father. She spent 11 days and nights living in parks and streets
before she was brought in.
many wolves out there," she told me.
"A girl has
to be strong, but if she has no money, she may be forced to do
things, illegal things, so that she can eat, and find somewhere to
'A great place'
Pari, who is 14,
has been at Reyhaneh House for a month. Both her parents are
heroin addicts and they lost their home.
Pari is a tough,
self-confident girl who wants to put the past behind her and study
to become a lawyer.
wonderful place to be for people like us. The social workers are
great, all the kids here are great, and we all get together, talk
to each other, sympathise for each other, and it's a great place
Atina has been left shattered by her experiences. At the age of
12, her mother and stepfather forced her to marry a man who turned
out to be a drug addict.
"He used to
chain me up all day long. I would beg him to undo the
chains," Atina says.
"But he just
left a little food for me and went off till late at night. I would
kiss his feet, begging him to unchain me but he would refuse,
saying, 'You've got no parents, so I can treat you like
Wanting to die
Atina managed to
divorce that husband. But her mother would not take her back. She
was obliged to marry again, to yet another addict. Now at last she
has found refuge.
But she says all
she really wants to do, is to die. Atina's story, like so many
others, involves drugs, and a broken home.
Eskanderi, who runs the Reyhaneh House, says that social change
and rising expectations are also a factor spurring girls to run
away in search of a better life.
only began in the last few years. It didn't exist before in
Iranian society, even before the revolution, because there was a
strong traditional culture.
"But now, our
children's minds are much more open, and exposed to foreign
culture. There's no comparison between the children of today and
those of even just 10 years ago. They claim their rights, and
they're determined to have them."
reasons, about 30 runaway girls are being taken in by the
authorities every day. And they are the lucky ones who are found.
They clearly represent just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
admits to 1.2 million drug addicts, and prostitution rates are
rising sharply. The authorities are now addressing these problems,
but an immense task lies ahead.