By Hassen Zenati

Algiers - The young woman's smile is sad, her greeting weary. Raped by her half brother, Farida took refuge in one of 30 safe houses throughout the Algerian capital that shelter abused women.

"After she was raped, Farida practically lost her mind," recalled Myriam Belala, president of a help group called SOS Women in Trouble. "We saved her from a mental asylum."

Although a recent government study said women were making inroads professionally in this mainly Muslim north African country of 33 million, Algeria has come under fire from rights groups who say poor treatment of women continues.

Last year, Amnesty International presented a report to the United Nations highlighting "the Algerian government's failure to protect women against rape, beatings, and widespread legal and

economic discrimination".

About 7 400 women filed domestic violence complaints last year, 1 555 more than in 2004, according to the law enforcement agency that handles such cases.

"Violence against women is a pervasive problem in Algeria. It touches all social classes and all regions, except in the extreme south where the Tuaregs banish men who rape women," said Belala,

referring to the Berber-speaking nomads who live in the Sahara region.

Violence overshadowed Algeria for nearly a half-century. A million lives were lost in the battle for independence from France in 1962, and another 150 000 to 200 000 people were slaughtered in a brutal civil war that followed the annulment of 1992 elections, though trouble has subsided since 2003.

But Belala said SOS Woman "broke a taboo" when it was founded about 15 years ago by becoming the first group to publicly denounce a different sort of violence - the domestic sort against women.

The group's crisis workers say domestic abuse cases are on the rise, but many victims fear scandal so never go to the police.

"However, they talk to us anonymously on the phone. We get hundreds of calls from women who complain of being sodomised or forced to do things they are not morally comfortable with," she said.

"The wedding night in traditional marriages often turns into a night of rape because couples often don't know each other before they get married," Belala said.

Her group also deals with "incest, frequent and dramatic", and "paedophilia", but since "sexual molestation of children is not recognised by law, the crime cannot be established", she said.

And though many women endure emotional and psychological abuse, "living resigned to daily humiliation by their husbands", Belala said most complaints concerned physical violence.

"We have seen terrible cases, women with broken bones and women whose husbands have thrown them from the top floor of a building."

Such attacks were usually triggered by domestic squabbles. "The men don't always beat because they are drunk, but in a burst of uncontrollable rage," she said.

Financed by international non-governmental organisations, SOS Women offers victims both shelter and training, such as new nine-month courses in weaving, sewing, information technology or management to give victims the wherewithal to start a new life.

Belala said one of SOS Women's greatest successes was getting police to work with her group.

"We demanded this partnership with the state. Our book on violence against women is now given to law enforcement officials, who are also trained to listen to women in distress."

Her next challenge is legal - changing laws in a conservative country where critics feel the Family Code, inspired by Sharia, or Islamic, law, consigns women to inferior status.

Last year, government-sponsored amendments to this code refused to abolish polygamy or the need for women to get approval from a tutor before marrying.

Belala vowed her group would take its fight to the National Assembly in 2007. "We are preparing commandos of victims to raise deputies' awareness about the distress of these women."

In the meantime, she dedicates herself to helping empower women against "machos".

In the offices of SOS Women, posters emblazoned with defiant slogans make clear their message: "If you are a real man, don't talk to her like that." - Sapa-AFP