From Where I stand: “I deserve to live, and work and do whatever is needed to make my daughter happy.”

Date: Sunday, April 25, 2021

Former Lebanese prison inmate Oula Abdo, 24, reflects on the challenges of life after prison and how she is getting back on her feet to embrace life again.

Oula Abdo. Picture UN Women/Dar Al Mussawir

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 My ex-husband was very abusive and a drug addict; sometimes he would lock me up at home for days, leaving me with whatever food there was at home. He was formerly a taxi driver and used to own a bakery, but he sold everything for drugs, even the furniture in our house.

I endured the abuse for a long time and never said anything, but when he started hitting my daughter, I could not take it anymore. I left him, and I filed for divorce and moved in with my parents.

In my community, it is unacceptable for women to divorce, and my family treated me like an outcast. My siblings kicked my daughter and I out of the house, so I sought help from friends who rented me a small apartment. My ex-husband could not accept the reality that I was living alone with my daughter in a house rented by my friends, so he falsely reported me to the police on charges of prostitution, but the accusations did not stick. He would pass by occasionally to see our daughter and would even ask me to get back together with him.

One time, my daughter was playing in the living room, and she found two bags of drugs under the couch; I immediately handed the bags over to my ex-husband and asked him not to come to my house again as long as he was still on drugs. He eventually turned himself in and accused me of selling drugs with him, and that is how I went to prison for a year and three months.

They accused me of selling drugs and covering up for my ex-husband; I admit that I covered for him, but how can I not? Can you see all these faded wounds on my face? They are stitches, and they are all caused by him.

My mental health in prison deteriorated a lot, and my daughter, who was staying with my parents, had frequent asthma attacks and would be rushed to the hospital for emergency care, and I could not be there to hold her hand. I used to cry every day - everything reminded me of my daughter.

I signed up for the training programme with Tripoli-based NGO Al Jamhiyaa al Loubnaniya Al Khairiya lil Islaah Wal Taahil two months before my release - I was the second to sign my name because I was in dire need of psychological help. Initially while I was still in prison, I was receiving psychosocial support. Many of my fellow inmates did not talk to each other and fought a lot, but after we received the life skills lessons and group therapy, we became more open with our feelings and chose to be honest with our reality and ourselves. A lot of the girls apologized, cried a lot, and expressed how they felt; the way we perceived each other changed.

I left prison three months ago, and enrolled in the second phase of the training, at a sewing workshop run by Al Jamhiyaa al Loubnaniya Al Khairiya lil Islaah Wal Taahil. None of us who attended the training skipped a single day because we wanted to be there; we wanted to get out of the house and to be part of a community where all we do is learn, laugh and be there for each other. It helped me feel like I could overcome my depression and that I could stand on my own feet again. It made me realize that I must not remain broken.

Oula Abdo receiving her sewing machine. Picture UN Women/Dar Al Mussawir

I used to self-harm; now I refuse to. I deserve to live, and work and do whatever is needed to make my daughter happy; I need to live if not only for myself, but also for my daughter. I refuse to let my daughter live what I lived through. When I first got out of prison, I refused to look at anyone in the eye; I would walk with my head down, but everything has changed now. My personality is more vigorous, and I am confident to face society; I believe in myself. Now, I dare to reply back to anyone who disrespects me.

My parents have also become more supportive. Thanks to this training, they regained their trust in me, and they are happy that I am leaving my house and that I am working. I already have two clients who asked me to shorten a pair of pants and a jacket, and I plan to work on these newly acquired skills to provide income for my daughter and me." 




SDG 5: Gender equality

Oula was part of a UN Women programme catering to current as well as former female inmates in Lebanon, conducted in partnership with Tripoli-based NGO Al Jamhiyaa al Loubnaniya Al Khairiya lil Islaah Wal Taahil (The Philanthropic Lebanese Association for Reform and Rehabilitation) and made possible by the generous support of the Government of Japan.

The programme supports the rehabilitation of prisoners, and their transition from prison back into society. It includes psychosocial support sessions while inmates were still in prison, as well as skills-based training in sewing, and cooking for inmates who were released. At the end of the six-month training, trainees were provided with assets to enable them to start their own businesses.

The UN Women programme aims to support former female inmates in Lebanon to enter the labor force and restart their lives, which can be particularly hard on female prisoners or former prisoners, who face discrimination as a result of their incarceration, amidst an economic crisis in Lebanon, which has seen women’s unemployment rate rise from 14.3 per cent before the crisis to 26 per cent by September 2020, according to a recent brief by UN Women.

Oula’s story illustrates the importance of achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality and the empowerment of women; and SDG 10, which calls for reducing inequalities in income as well as those based on age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.