“keep it low..tell no one about it..or you will be punished,” this is how some parents approach their children, once they discover that they have been suffering an abuse, one that can be classified under sexual violence, and alluding to penalty, the child strives with “shame,” feelings of guilt and the fear of being “exposed.”
In a society reigned by traditions, the word “shame” is used as a weapon against the victim and a life ring to violators; children, thus, turn from being victims of sexual abuse, rape sometimes, into convicts in the eyes of their parents before any one else.
Child Sexual Violence, a Definition
Sexual violence against children is a great breach of child rights, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), but still it is a universal reality, affecting all countries around the world and all social classes, taking the form of sexual assault, rape, harassment or exploitation for prostitution or pornography.
Sexual violence against children might be committed at home, establishments, schools, workplaces and travel and tourism facilities; “UNICEF” warns that cellphones and internet might increasingly contribute in exposing children to the dangers of sexual violence, for some adults surf the internet in search of sexual relations with children.
While children exchange sexual images, in what is called “sexting, there is a rise in the number and the circulation of child sexual abuse footage, both acts make children liable to further forms of exploitation.
Silence Empowers Abusers
What happened in one of Tartus governorate’s towns, where people talked about one of the town’s people raping 14 children, is a clear indicator to the families’ silence, who did not file a complaint against the violator though they knew who he was, which led to the victimization of another child.
The Syrian Minister of Justice Hisham al-Shaar pointed out, during a press conference held in Tartus on August 17, that there are no further accusations in the case issued against the defendant, saying: “This does not refute that he committed this against the children and so does not prove it. It might have or have not happened.”
Al-Shaar’s statements followed the spread of a video on social media platforms, in which the father of the raped child appeared while accusing the judge, who released a person that raped 14 children after 17 days only, of bribery and corruption.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the psychologist Ahmad Shaikhani said that the cause is related to the families’ reaction which consider the rape a “stigma,” and refrain from reporting the offender.
“Society usually slurs over the abused child, for the culture of dealing with such problems does not exist, which is supposed to consider a child a victim not a convict, or a survivor of a bad experience,” he added.
The Stand Point of the Law
The Minister of Justice Hisham al-Shaar pointed out that results of the medical examinations of the child, who have been reported as raped, are negative, which means that no traces of sexual assault appear on him, alluding to the fact that the absence of traces does not negate the assault, according to the Syrian Criminal Code.
The Syrian Criminal Code differentiates between the types of assault, depending on the level of the volition, the most extreme of which is rape, followed by harassment, indecent act and behaviour incompatible with common propriety.
These crimes, except for rape, are considered a misdemeanor; accordingly, their penalty does not exceed a prison sentence of three years.
The rape penalty is 15 years of rigorous imprisonment, increased to 21 years if the raped person is a minor.
Human rights voices are rising in demand for the amendment of the Syrian Criminal Code. They are asking for changing the age level, upon which the sentence imposed on those committing sexual assaults against children are increased. So, instead of classifying the child whose age is between 12 and 16 years old, according to the case, a minor; they want the abused to be classified a minor according to the childhood age, adopted by the Syrian Civil Code and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, from birth to the age of 18.
Causes and Effects Covered by Silence
Parents, followed by society, usually treat the victims of rape, as convicts, partners in the criminality, stigmatizing them for the rest of their lives.
Shaikhani attributes this social behavior to the people’s fear of what they refer to as a “scandal,” and the child is often blamed for being the weaker side.
As for the effects of this approach to the matter, Shaikhani explains: “The effects on the child are vey bad; sometimes the child refrains from telling his parents for fear, which is normal, because the child is not aware that he/she is not guilty while the offender deludes the child that he/she is a partner and a convict, threatening him/her of exposure if he/she tells someone, in addition to some cases who fear the social surrounding as a result of the abuse he/she suffered or psychological disorders which sometimes turn into a compulsion.”
The extreme effects, in “a few cases,” according to Shaikhani, include the turning of those who were raped as children into offenders, in an attempt to test the act which the offender has committed a long time ago, or the impact of the act on the raped child, which might appear as sexual perversions, if the conditions were encouraging.
Care Offered to Sexual Violence Victims
The types of care vary according to the type of abuse the child has been subjected to. There is one-time harassment, repeated harassment, and sometimes rape, all of which have symptoms that must be observed by the parents.
Shaikhani pointed out that there are cases in which the offender is a family member, from the child’s familiar environment, and already enjoys the trust of the child, according to which they are not treated as strangers are. This is one of the cases in which parents make a secret of the abuse, as not to disgrace the family.
Parents, in the first place, must be careful with how the familiar environment treats their child and must not trust all people even relatives. This type of interaction must be put under control. Attention should be paid to signs that may appear on the child, such as his fear of mixing with some people, behavioral disorders, and health problems, according to Shaikhani.
Although it is a shock to parents, the voice of reason must be dominant. The child is not guilty; he/she is a victim of an assault and must be given a chance to speak about the experience and communicate with others. Children must be encouraged to engage in society because this reassures them and gives them confidence in the surrounding.
UN Figures on Sexual Violence against Children
According to World Health Organization (WHO) figures, a quarter of adults around the world report being physically abused as children, and one out of five women and one out of 13 men report exposure to sexual abuse in childhood.
Many children are also subjected to emotional abuse (sometimes referred to as psychological abuse) and neglect.
During armed conflicts and in refugee settlements, girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse by combatants, security forces, members of their local communities, aid workers and others.
In 2002, the World Health Organization estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 were coerced to have sex and subjected to other forms of sexual violence involving physical contact.
Millions of others are likely to be exploited for prostitution or pornography every year and are often tempted or forced by false promises and ignorance. Nevertheless, the real extent of sexual violence remains hidden, owing to its sensitive and illegal nature.
Most children and families do not report cases of abuse and exploitation because of stigma, fear and lack of confidence in the authorities, and social intolerance and lack of awareness, according to “UNICEF”.
“UNICEF’s” evidence suggests that sexual violence can have serious short- and long-term consequences, as well as physical, psychological and social repercussions not only in relation to girls or boys, but also to their families and communities. This includes increased risk of disease, unwanted pregnancy, stress, stigmatization, discrimination and academic difficulties.