Iran: Telephone hotline helps children in Bam

It is around midday on a Wednesday morning in the oasis town of Bam, in south-east Iran. Counsellor Hassan Barzang from Iran's State Welfare Organization sits patiently behind his desk in a small prefabricated building, or connex. This is the office for Bam's first telephone hotline service.

The phone starts to ring. It is one of the first calls of the day.

Through careful questioning Barzang finds out that the caller is a young boy whose parents died in the earthquake and who's now living with his uncle. The boy complains of being treated badly and of being beaten. Barzang decides to refer the boy to a drop-in counselling service run by the Ministry of Education.

"If the caller seems to have a serious problem, we give them counselling as much as we can and then refer them to a centre where they can get specialized help," says Barzang.

Supported by UNICEF, Bam's telephone hotline employs two social workers and two advisors for psychological and legal support. They work in shifts, ensuring the service is manned from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening.

The Bam hotline is modelled on similar services that are already operating in Iran's major cities. However due to the earthquake in December 2003 that killed more than 30,000 people, the counsellors have also been trained to deal with tragedy and loss.

The aim is to create a level of trust between the caller and the counsellor, so that problems can be solved at an early stage. If the issue is too serious for them to handle, the hotline acts as a bridge, connecting the caller to a specialized service.

"We have had several cases of runaway girls who have been introduced to us by the police," says Hotline manager Marzieh Arjmand. "We can help these girls immediately through the hotline. We know there are many girls and women who are being abused and exploited. They might not know where to go to get help but through the hotline, it is much easier to deal with their problems."

As with all counselling services, the hotline is completely confidential. It is also free of charge.

"Counselling over the telephone has proved to be very effective in helping people with their problems because of confidentiality," said Amir Ghaderi, UNICEF Assistant in Child Protection. "By using this hotline, they can remain anonymous and at the same time receive the advice they need."

The hotline complements UNICEF's family reunification scheme, which focuses on getting families or extended families to deal with their own problems. Now, if anyone is having problems or is worried about something, they can call the free phone number and receive confidential advice. Sometimes just having a person to talk to is all that is needed.