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Thursday, 14 December, 2000, 23:19 GMT
Iran's girl runaways
Iranian women
Iran's traditional family is now bombarded with new influences

By Jim Muir in Tehran

There is growing concern in Iran over the rising number of young girls who run away from home.

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 outlying provinces.

This is the seedy side of life in Iran, where drug abuse and prostitution are constantly on the increase.

Fraught with danger

On waste ground near one bus station I found heroin junkies shooting up quite openly.

It is a situation fraught with dangers for young, vulnerable girls running away from home.

But efforts are being made to save the girls from being sucked into the seamy underworld.

Social worker Jamileh Shahbaz works from the bus terminal, trying to spot runaway girls before the gangs get to them.

Iranian women
Reform has made women and girls more assertive

"It's natural 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.

"There are many questions going on in their minds. They are worried. And of course they're very unhappy."

Professional advice

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.

One 17-year-old 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.

"There are 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 sleep."

'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.

"It's a 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 to be."

But 18-year-old 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 this'."

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.

But Fahimeh 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.

"This problem 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."

Whatever the 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.

Iran officially 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.

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