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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - As the violence of sectarian warfare ebbs, Iraq's government has taken tentative first steps to combat another kind of violence -- domestic abuse, primarily against women.
The Interior Ministry has opened two "family protection" centers in Baghdad police stations, the first of their kind, to deal with cases of domestic violence.
The centers are staffed mainly by female social workers and investigators, an important step in Iraq's male-oriented culture to make women feel more comfortable about reporting abuse.
So far, because the centers are at police stations and domestic violence remains a taboo subject, few women have dared to go them for help. Yet the state Ministry of Woman's Affairs considers the centers to be a victory for Iraqi women who once had nowhere to turn.
"I always call this violence the untold crime because it did not end up always in the courts ... it's a serious issue if there are no civil centers or legal authority to resolve it," Azhar al-Shaarbaf, the ministry's legal expert.
Shaarbaf said Iraqi politicians once rejected the idea of women being abused and turned a blind eye to the issue.
"Now the political class comprehends the words 'abused woman,' which is progress, since the political class is the one that makes decisions," she said.
Iraq has no official data on abused women but the government no longer denies it is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Kamil Ameen, a spokesman for the human rights ministry, said a lot of Iraqi women are abused, whether through disrespectful treatment, verbal insults or beatings.
It is not unusual to see signs of violence on a woman's body or to hear shouting or crying coming from houses.
But women seldom complain or seek help. Tradition makes it difficult for a woman to complain to police about a husband because she could be seen, even by her own relatives, as having brought shame upon the family.
"The reason is the cultural nature of the society. When the women is abused she has no place to go," Ameen said. "She still feels afraid and considers complaining socially unacceptable."
At the new family protection center in Baghdad's Qahira district, a police lieutenant who asked to be identified only as Israa said while the centers were a positive sign, their location -- in police stations -- limited their usefulness.
"It is not going to work ... because she (an abused woman) will consider herself coming to the police station, not to a social center, and that is socially unacceptable," she said.
The centers are not shelters for abused women and their main mission is to resolve conflict. In the case of a woman beaten by her husband, for example, the offender might be required to sign a document promising not to do it again.
Israa, a university graduate in psychology, said in her four months at both family centers she had seen only one case where a woman came in to complain her husband had beaten her.
The human rights ministry said it had tried to have the centers located somewhere else, but had no success so far.
"We asked to make them far away and independent from the police station so women could go to them with freedom," Ameen said. "This is not easy for our society but we have to start somewhere, like any other country."
For G.M., an Iraqi woman who asked to be identified only by her initials, reporting her husband to police is not an option, even though she said she considers him abusive, both verbally and by his disrespectful manner toward her.
"The Iraqi woman is abused and she must keep silent," she said. "He does not beat me. But even if he does, I won't go to a police station. This is not ethical."
Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Graff