Syria’s Children Chased By Physical Violence: Who Saves Them?
Enab Baladi’s investigation team
Habba Shehadeh/ Reham al Assaad/ Mays Hamad
The stick left its mark on his soft body and the thick cable strikes inflicted blue and red lines on his sides. Qusay, 10, did not know that the six hours he spent under punishment would turn into a public opinion issue in the country where the rituals of “ruthless” education were sanctified.
His tormentor and employer, the owner of a blacksmith shop in al-Tal city, north of Damascus, was arrested after the case was met with disdain among Syrians last July.
Qusay was left with a fractured skull and eight degrees of visual impairment in the left eye, as well as bruises and cuts in the jaw, back, hands and thighs. The orphan was assaulted under the pretext of stealing amounts money on several occasions from the shop where he works, according to the Syrian Interior Ministry at the time.
The suffering the child experienced was not the most heinous case among other cases witnessed by the Syrians in the summer of the ninth year of the conflict, which devoured hundreds of thousands of individuals and left behind millions of victims. Syrians became used to seeing children as victims of shelling, and armed clashes, or as internally displaced and detainees. Thus, domestic and social violence against children became a secondary issue compared to the grievances of war.
On the other hand, the increasing media reports about similar cases as that of Qusay are raising fears about the growing phenomenon of physical abuse against children, as a reflection of the war, and the subsequent psychological and societal effects that reinforce the cycle of violence.
This file discusses the possibility of empowering the endeavor to eliminate the phenomenon of physical violence against children, through monitoring related incidents, and discussing them with psychologists and social workers. The file also depicts the extent to which Syrian laws are informed about this issue, and the legislative position thereon, as well as the issue of violence against children among Syrians abroad, while exposing the psychological effects of the phenomenon.
Foregrounding the phenomenon
Has the war promoted violence against children?
Inflicting violence and corporal punishment upon children is not a new phenomenon in Syrian society. However, the recent emergence of some incidents through the media has brought the phenomenon back to the forefront in light of the children’s exposure to the risk of death, injury and displacement, with the spread of gun violence.
The Syrians circulated the incident which occurred in Dar al-Rahma orphanage in Damascus after a young woman, Rana Jaqouch, who lives next to the orphanage in Rukn al-Din area, published a Facebook post about the suffering of girls there.
Jaqouch reflected through her post the violence and humiliation orphan girls are subjected to, stressing that she saw a nine-year-old girl beaten with high heels on her cheek.
Her complaint has led only to her arrest, as the Syrian Ministry of Interior denied the beating on September 19, based on a quick inspection conducted by representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs in the orphanage, asking the girls about their condition and confirming, on the basis of their answers, that they were not subjected to “verbal or physical abuse”.
Observers’ attention to Jaqouch’s complaint about the safety of the girls has shifted to disdaining the authorities’ speeding of the investigation procedures, the closure of the case and the arrest of the young woman, who was released hours later. Thus, the quest to save children from violence has been listed as a social and security taboo.
Other incidents of violence against children in Syria have raised eyebrows and led to the link between such cases and the proliferation of weapons, which has increased over the past years, such as the case of the torture of a 6-year-old girl along with her three-year-old brother, in July, by their mother and husband in al-Salamieh area, Hama countryside. Both the mother and stepfather used pliers to pull out the nails of the children and cigarettes to burn them.
Fertile environment for domestic violence
Psychiatrist Jalal Nofal told Enab Baladi that accurate statistics to compare the rates of violence against children in Syria before and after the war are not available. However, the numbers follow a general rule of increase during years of war and violence.
The impact of the war, according to Nofal, is manifested by increased psychological and economic pressures on parents, as being subjected to compelling circumstances forces them, in turn, to inflict different types of violence against their children, including physical abuse, denial of education, child labor, and underage marriage, as well as the lack of familial care as a result of death, migration, displacement, or detention.
The war has left four out of five Syrians below the poverty line, and more than 6.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in other countries, where 90 percent of them faced challenges that increased incidences of violence against children and increased the little ones’ suffering, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 28.500 children died from March 2011 to March 2019, 177 died under torture, 4721 were arrested, and 2116 forcibly disappeared by all the conflicting parties on the Syrian territory.
UNICEF said in a report published last August that 8 million children are in need of help, including 2.5 million refugee children outside Syria and 2.6 million internally displaced children.
Personality of the “executioner”
The war has not only brought about the effects of destruction and material pain. It has also caused severe psychological scares in the minds of adults and children, who were stripped of their dignity and felt denigrated as a result of the prevailing violence. They were deprived of their internal sources of power, which led to their adoption of violence in turn, in what is known as the case of “identification with the executioner,” said Nofal
Victims of violence identify with the character of their aggressors in order to renounce their sense of humiliation and helplessness, as they tend to project violence against groups they can control.
Nofal explained that the projection of violence in most cases is applied by “the husband against his wife and children. As for the rest of the Syrians, who took up arms, they apply violence against civilians. The culture of war is present in everyone’s psyche and everyone applies it to the extent of his or her own milieu.”
He added that human beings try to restore their own balance of power, after feeling stripped of a certain force as a result of violence, so they seek to identify with the “executioner” and paint a mental image that they are “executioners too and not victims.”
Poll: War has increased violence against children
Considering that the increasing magnitude of a phenomenon as a result of specific circumstances is difficult to measure, the issue of the growing phenomenon of physical violence against children remained within the framework of observation and possibilities based on psychological and social theories.
In this context, Enab Baladi launched an opinion poll via Facebook in an attempt to understand the Syrians’ perception of the relationship between the war and increasing incidents of violence against youngsters.
Enab Baladi asked the following question: “In your opinion, has the war affected the increase in the phenomenon of violence targeting children in Syria, and why?”
89 percent of respondents said “Yes”, while 11 percent out of more than 600 respondents dismissed the possible link between the war and violence against children.
Facebook user Ahmed Malih al-Hassoun supported the first alternative saying: “The phenomenon was originally present in almost 80 percent of Syrian households and other social institutions, and with the state of despair that swept the country, most people lost control of their feelings and balance, which was disastrously reflected on the weakest members of the community, namely the children.”
Another Facebook user, Batoul Mohammed, supported Ahmed’s opinion and wrote: “The phenomenon has always existed. However, because of the war, and the lack of appropriate conditions for a normal life, the parents are practicing violence against their children to relieve psychological pressure.”
Drawing from his personal experience, Nasr Haddad stated: “Before the crisis, I was more ill- tempered while dealing with my children, yet, now I try to control my anger more”
Parenting or violence
Fragile laws did not protect children from parents’ abuse
The Syrian Penal Code was ratified 60 years ago, during which the law lost its flexibility responding to emergencies and variables imposed by the course of time. Parents abusing and hurting their children became outside the purview of that law, and subject to the inherited societal cultures, which allow parents to behave in such a way under the pretext of “discipline”.
Law allowing “beating for the sake of discipline”
There is no explicit article in the Syrian Penal Code protecting a child against the abuse of his/her parents or anyone else, for children are society’s most vulnerable group, according to Syrian lawyer Abdo Abdel Ghafour statement to Enab Baladi. He pointed out the existence of a single one article in the penal code allowing parents to beat their children under the pretext of “beating for the sake of discipline”.
Article 185 of the Syrian Penal Code allows “discipline measures inflicted on children by their parents and professors in following the general custom.” Lawyer Abdo Abdel Ghafour explained that this law gives the perpetrator a “justified excuse” in case the child was beaten by one of his/her parents or teachers without leaving any mark. Thus, the penalty is fully waived under the preceding article.
Definition of abuse
“All forms of violence, harm or physical or mental abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, abuse or exploitation, including sexual abuse” as explained in article 19, paragraph 1, of the 1989 United Nations Convention.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defined it as “the intentional use of physical force or ability, whether through threat or actual use against oneself or another person or a group or community, in which either of them leads to or is likely to cause injury, death or psychological harm or poor growth or deprivation.”
It includes forms of physical, psychological, sexual or verbal abuse against a child, and its practices are widespread, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which confirms that one among four adults around the world has been physically abused during childhood.
In case the abuse amounted to physical harm or permanent disability, the case will be subject to the items of the General Penal Code and is treated as if a stranger had assaulted another person, without taking into account whether the victim was a child or adult, or whether he/she was beaten by one of his parents or someone else, according to Abdel Ghafour.
If the beating was severe, the case is often subject to articles 540, 541 and 542 of the Syrian Penal Code, which consider the child an adult in case of any mischief.
Article 540 states that “anyone intentionally beating, injuring or harming another without causing his or her work to be disrupted for more than ten days shall be punished following the complaint of the victim and sentenced to six months ‘imprisonment or preventive detention and a fine ranging between 25 to 100 Syrian pounds or one of these two penalties. ”
Article 541 stipulates that “in case the harm caused to the person prevented him or her from working for ten days, the perpetrator shall be sentenced to one year or less and required to pay a fine of one hundred pounds or at least one of these penalties.”
Article 542 stipulates that if the suspension exceeds twenty days, the penalty shall be imprisonment from three months to three years, in addition to the aforementioned fine.
Although Syrian law, enacted in 1959, does not support in one way or another beating and abusing children, it does not, in turn, pay special treatment to them if they are beaten or abused by their parents or anyone else.
Lawyer Abdo Abdel Ghafour, a member of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association (FSLA) in Aleppo, believes that Syrian society needs a revolution in laws, especially with regard to the protection of vulnerable groups in Syrian society, especially children and women.
Abdel Ghafour, who has been a lawyer since 2005, pointed out that the changes that have taken place in Syrian society during the war years require the introduction of new laws that will protect children from any violation, especially with the spread of child employment, school dropouts, early marriage, militarization and abuse.
Formally ratifying the UNCRC
In November 1989, the UN General Assembly ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which came into force in September 1990. It consists of 54 articles, written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The items of the convention as a whole focus on the fact that children have the right to special care and assistance and that the family must grant the necessary protection and assistance to children. “The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”
Three years after putting the international convention into action, the Syrian government ratified it under Law No. 8, but has reserved some of the articles of the convention, according to a statement a Syrian expert judge familiar with constitutional law provided to Enab Baladi.
The judge, who lives in Syria and spoke with Enab Baladi on conditions of anonymity for security reasons, said at that time Syria objected to several articles of the UNCRC, for they are not “inappropriate” to Syrian society, traditions, customs and laws.
Syria rejected article 14, granting the child the right to choose religion, ideas, and conscience, and article 20 and 21 allowing the family to legally adopt children and include them in their family register, which is contrary to the religious beliefs of the majority of the Syrian people.
However, the Syrian judge, holding a PhD in Syrian constitutional law, considers that Syria ratifying the UNCRC is “formal”, as there is no regulatory body monitoring and following up the implementation of the Convention, such is the case with Western countries, amid the absence of the Syrian State and its apparatus.
He added that international conventions are equivalent to domestic law in each country, and if they contradict in a particular case, the domestic law is applied rather than international conventions. This impedes the application of items of the UNCRC with regard to domestic violence, as Syrian law does not give any particular consideration for the issue of children abused by their parents, and deals with it as a public felony.
The culture of beating is “inherent”: Who complains?
A study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on September 2017 suggests that nearly 1 billion children worldwide, or six out of ten children aged 2-14, are subjected to physical punishment by their parents and caregivers on a regular basis.
The study, entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence against Children”, examined 190 countries around the world, including Syria. It has found that 78% of Syrian children are subjected to physical violence as school punishment, while 25% are beaten up to the point of severe physical violence.
In this regard, the Syrian judge, who preferred to remain anonymous, believed that the problem of child violence in Syria is caused by “procedural” obstacles. He explained that in case the child was subjected to abuse by one of his parents they get covered up because he or she is not legally eligible to file a complaint.
He added that if there were differences between the mother and father, and one of them filed a complaint against the other for child abuse and harm, the accused will be held accountable under the items of the General Penal Code in case the assault has been proved.
Accordingly, the judge, who holds a doctorate in constitutional law, believes that the Syrian society needs a high sense of awareness of the phenomenon of child violence, through the allocation of programs that educate young people before marriage, and guide them to the fundamentals of upbringing, in addition to activating the role of the school in case a child seems to be beaten and hurt by his parents.
The judge pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi that “child abuse laws adopted in the western countries cannot be applied in our societies, considering that the law must go in line with the environment in which it is imposed.” He added: “Nonetheless, I am for the introduction of special legal provisions that take into account social relations and the prevalent norms in the Syrian society and at the same time protect children from violence.”
The Syrian lawyer Abdo Abdel Ghafour also believes that the Syrian society’s culture is “insufficient” to protect children from family violence, as it is “instilled and inherited” in some Syrian families, under the pretext of upbringing and discipline.
The lawyer pointed out to Enab Baladi that the Free Syrian Lawyers Association (FSLA), to which he belongs in the northern countryside of Aleppo, held several workshops to raise awareness against the phenomenon of child violence in northern Syria. However, they have not yet born fruit, as he put it, noting the need to enact laws to protect children from all manifestations of violence, which would be respected by all Syrian families without exception.
In the land of law…
Syrian children between freedom and “home upbringing”
Syrians who left the country during the war carried their customs and behaviors with them abroad, including those related to the methods of upbringing and guiding children, which collided with customs and laws governing the upbringing process in host communities.
In Arab countries of asylum, the phenomenon of physical violence against children has not significantly decreased, due to the convergence of social customs and the lack of laws protecting children in general. In Lebanon, for example, a UNICEF survey conducted in 2016 showed that 65 percent of Syrian children were exposed to violence at home or at school.
In a report published in 2016, Human Rights Watch confirmed that Syrian children in Lebanon were subjected to violence in schools.
In contrast, family relations in European countries are subject to laws aimed at protecting children from all forms of violence, by ensuring that children are given their rights, with the threat of taking them from their families and depriving their families of taking them back if the state proves that they are threatened in case they stay with their families.
A penalty against parents
In the first years of Syrians’ asylum in Europe, cases of children being withdrawn from Syrian families, who had not been familiar with social protection laws in their new countries, were widespread, said Austria-based psychologist Dr. Tumadher Omar to Enab Baladi, adding: “We used to hear almost every month about a child being withdrawn from his family as a result of violence.”
Parents have later become more cautious about child abuse, according to the psychologist, as “they are unable to implement the upbringing process they understand, which is the policy of violence and reprimand, and at the same time, they will lose their child if they do not implement it.”
The psychologist pointed out that a portion of parents have turned to asking help from the state, which provided educational training that enabled some of them to adjust their methods of dealing with children to ensure that they are not alienated from the values that parents want to instill.
New society’s shock
Violence against the most vulnerable groups in society, including children, is linked to the list of social and legal taboos in most European countries.
In Sweden, for example, debate and dialogue spark whenever a new rumor or story is spread about the withdrawal of social services of any child from their parents, said teacher and former education counselor Omar al-Sayed Ahmad, who lives and works in Sweden.
Mr. Ahmad, who took care of receiving new refugee children while working in a Swedish government school for three years, pointed out that the Syrian children he saw were in a state of “shock” in the new society, compared to the educational methods they were used to.
On the other hand, the state’s laws banned parents from resorting to beating, according to Ahmad, which made them feel losing complete control over children as a result of their “ignorance” of the laws.
Mr. Ahmad explained that the law in Sweden does not give the child full freedom, but all decisions are referred to his parents. However, the parents’ loss of their tools and fear of state intervention led some of them to refrain from completely interfering in their children’s bringing up, and “pushed others to exert psychological pressure on children and intimidate them from disclosing the abuse they are subjected to at home while continuing to use beating as a means of upbringing.”
What is the psychological impact of child violence?
Harmful behaviors are caused by a number of factors and causes, notably the weakness of family ties, dysfunctional relationships, and the lack of parental awareness, said Psychological Consultant Dr. Ammar Bitar to Enab Baladi.
This is in addition to the psychological, economic or security pressures facing any family, the acceptance of the approach of violence and force in society, and the consideration of physical punishment as an acceptable form of punishment.
Psychologist, Dr. Ahmad Shukheis, considered that the Syrian society’s embrace of a culture of violence as a means of upbringing a child and instilling aggressive values in him/her under the pretext of self-defense or not remaining silent about his/her rights, generated a “positive” feature of violence.
The social acceptance of violence in Syria has extended to become an institutional approach, spreading in schools, and training and education centers. Any other approach will be considered as strange and will bring criticism and calls for intervention, making the child grow up filled with memories of cruelty and saturated with the violence approach, according to Shukheis.
Violence against children leads to very bad consequences on the child’s psychological and physical levels, according to Psychological Consultant Dr. Ammar Bitar. It has also very profound effects, which may continue for the future and create physical and spiritual abnormalities that do not leave the child for life, and may sometimes lead to death.
Bitar pointed out that violence has signs in the child’s behavior, from the marks of wounds and bruises to the expression of fear and panic when hearing screams, although the child is not concerned.
He added that the abused child tends to be introverted. The child also suffers from slow development and acquisition of the skills or abilities acquired by children in his/her age, and the loss of what he/she had previously acquired, with the inability to grow in some cases and fear of dealing with parents.
The abused child may also suffer from psychological effects such as low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, with reduced school performance and nervousness.
In addition, the abused child is more likely to commit misdemeanors, crime, bullying and violence against others. He also adopts lying and theft as a behavior, psychologist Dr. Ahmad Shukheis said, adding that the abused child can also face difficulties in sleeping, nightmares and involuntary urination.