Child sexual abuse in Syria, “No to Silence”

Child molestation (edited by Enab Baladi)

Child sexual abuse in Syria, “No to Silence”

Child molestation (edited by Enab Baladi)

Child molestation (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Hassan Ibrahim | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Lujain Mourad | Diya Assi

Dozens of the displaced people of the city of Palmyra and the people of the eastern countryside of Aleppo demanded that a person accused of molesting and raping a minor girl be held accountable in the city of al-Bab on 30 May.

Wearing civil and military clothes and with angry faces, the demonstrators headed to the civil police station in the city controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition factions, against the background of the assault and rape of the 12-year-old girl, who hails from Palmyra. They protested in front of the building and demanded that the accused be held accountable and punished.

The demonstration was followed by audio recordings of people said to be notables from the city of Palmyra, who called on the demonstrators to calm down and wait for the judgment of the judicial authorities in the city, which arrested the accused.

Within two weeks of the incident, the city of al-Bab witnessed a state of popular anger and new security tensions against the background of molesting a minor girl (under five years old) on 12 June, which was denied by a member of the accused’s family, and met with angry statements and demands for accountability, and promises from the judicial authorities operating in the area.

Cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse are not limited to areas in northern Syria under the control of the opposition but are almost spread throughout the Syrian territories, but they are not covered by the media or kept secret within households to be forgotten by families and children.

Enab Baladi discusses the crime of child harassment in Syria in this file. It also sheds light on the media’s coverage and ways to address it.

Also, Enab Baladi discusses the social and legal consequences of this crime, in addition to the measures that the family can take to protect their child from becoming a victim of harassment, by discussing with psychologists and educators, media experts, and human rights defenders.

Focus on the “virginity of girls”

Media ignores harassment, parents keep quiet

Activists on social media as well as local news accounts worked to bring issues of child harassment in Syria to the fore. On the other hand, there has been a regression in dealing with the crime of harassment through the Syrian media in its various sectors, including the official media and the media close to the regime, in favor of the cases associated with the crime in which the act of harassment goes beyond assault and the killings that may follow with different methods of execution.

Last January, the police of al-Ghazlaniya town in Damascus countryside arrested a child (under 18 years old) after killing his 11-year-old sister with a sharp object after she refused to respond to his attempt to molest her.

The crime, which received wide interaction, turned into a public opinion case, given that the perpetrator and victim are brothers first and under 18 years of age in the second, in addition to the occurrence of a murder that contributed to revealing the case of harassment, which was likely to be overlooked for social considerations, as was the custom in Syria.

In July 2020, the media took the lead in another case that went beyond harassment, when a 13-year-old Syrian child was raped by three young men in the Lebanese town of Sohmor, which required an official comment by the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim, on the case, considering it “stirred up to achieve goals.”

The BBC Arabic reported at the time that the case extends to about two or three years ago, but the appearance of a newly published video recording documenting the “psychological and physical suffering” that the child was subjected to brought the case back to the fore.

There are no accurate official statistics published for cases of child harassment in Syria, in addition to poor coverage and media treatment, despite the psychological effects that harassment leaves on the victim.

Enab Baladi searched for the terms harassment and child molestation through the official website of the Syrian News Agency (SANA), to find out that the latest publication, on 22 November 2019, to talk about harassment was through a non-local news item, under the title “London rules in favor of a former employee of the Qatari embassy was harassed by Qatari diplomats.”

Enab Baladi also monitored the latest published material about child harassment in the local newspaper, al-Watan, which is close to the regime, by searching its official website, and the latest results at the local level, a news item published on 28 October 2019, under the title “Sharia Police arrested six boys for harassing schoolgirls.”

In the opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria, the incident of harassment of a five-year-old girl in the city of al-Bab in the eastern countryside of Aleppo last June emerged and sparked popular anger and security tensions, in conjunction with many angry statements at the local, military and clan levels.

In this case, the Telegram platform played a major role in provoking it and mobilizing public opinion around it, as these rooms move without controls and transmit messages with incitement at times and defamation, often by publishing the name of the victim, the perpetrator, the family, and the area of ​​residence.

A child takes refuge with his father (Illustration image )

A child takes refuge with his father (Illustration image )

Hymen integrity is their only concern

The latest published official figures on sexual abuse of children were on 24 October 2018, when about 363 cases of sexual abuse of children were recorded in six Syrian governorates, topped by Aleppo with 165 cases and Damascus with 110 cases, according to Zaher Hajjo, Director of the General Authority for Forensic Medicine in Syria.

Hajjo said that about 90 percent of the cases are not reported because of the people’s fear of the issue of shame, honor, and others, noting that it has been noticed in recent times that there has been a lot of sexual abuse of children, even on some male boys, in light of the war.

“In our societies, they always look at the victim, especially a female, as under suspicion, and society forgets the perpetrator,” Hajjo told al-Watan newspaper, considering that this view drives the perpetrator to commit other crimes.

The director of the General Authority for Forensic Medicine did not specify the nature of the sexual assaults, but he made it clear that the concern of many of those whose relatives were attacked is “the integrity of the hymen.” When this is confirmed, the case is closed as if nothing had happened.

Media negative role

Director of the Syrian Press Center, Akram al-Ahmad, says that the role of the Syrian media as a whole (whether the Syrian regime media or the opposition media) in addressing the issue of harassment was negative and did not go beyond reporting the news, without producing materials that fall within the framework of solutions journalism for educational issues of this kind, with the exception of small projects that have received funding for this regard, but there are no clear steps from media outlets to address sensitive issues.

Al-Ahmad, in his interview with Enab Baladi, attributed the lack of coverage to the emergence of alternative media and the financial situation and sustainability of modern institutions, which prompted them to turn towards news more than influence, awareness, and offering solutions.

The Press Center director suggested changing the media plans of the same institution in order to address the child concerned with the case and deliver the message in an optimal manner in line with the identity of the child and his parents as well since the subject is of course sensitive.

In addition to the need to search for content that the child accepts, focus on the issue and study it before treating it, while giving more space to the child within the coverage of the media outlet, he added.

Not “desirable talk”

Deliberating sexual issues, such as harassment, sexual violence, rape, and others, is undesirable because of the society’s culture and customs, and the media is affected by the social situation, which explains why it does not address these issues on a wide media space, so as not to violate community standards, says Jumana al-Ahmad, the psychological support coordinator at Guardians of Childhood organization.

The collapse of moral values, societal fabric, and economic factors formed a fertile environment for the spread of the phenomenon of child molestation, al-Ahmad adds to Enab Baladi.

The decline in coverage of these phenomena, and sometimes its absence, is related to the fact that talking about the phenomenon means the inability of the authority to protect the people in its areas of control or influence, in addition to the fact that a good percentage of cases of harassment occurs by people close to the child, which may push the child to keep the matter secret, according to the psychological support coordinator.

Public addressing of child sexual abuse breaks chains

Awareness sessions and public talk about child molestation were able to break many of the societal restrictions that used to make this phenomenon hidden, and it was forbidden to talk about it in secret or in public as it is a shameful phenomenon and stigmatizes society and the abused together, says al-Ahmad.

The focus on the issue of harassment contributed to the circulation of protection talks and finding solutions among the groups of society, which has become more tolerant, but below the level required yet to help children avoid being harassed or help them to disclose if they are exposed to sexual abuse.

The public talk about the phenomenon contributes to the parents’ orientation to take advantage of the psychosocial support guides, which contain a special session to educate the child that his body is his own and no one should be allowed to harm him/her.

The sessions also educate children about safe and unsafe touches and to whom they should resort if they are exposed to suspicious touches or sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment against children also includes making whispers and sexually suggestive sounds, as well as touching, groping, rubbing, and any kind of sexual signal directed at the child.

It also includes child molestation, nudity and showing the genitals or masturbation in the presence of the child, and threats of any kind of sexual harassment or sexual assault, including the threat of rape.

In addition to making sexual remarks about the child’s body or way of walking, telling sexual jokes and tales, uttering sexual words, or displaying sexual photos.

Forms of sexual misconduct, sexual violence

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) distinguishes between sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual violence against children.

Sexual exploitation refers to any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes.

Sexual abuse is the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favor, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behavior of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or perceived.

Two children sitting on a wall in Douma city in Damascus countryside - 29 June 2022 (UN)

Two children sitting on a wall in Douma city in Damascus countryside – 29 June 2022 (UN)

Child exploitation, abuse in law

The war-torn country has been a party to several major human rights treaties and a party to several optional protocols, obligating the state to prevent and protect children from sexual abuse, according to the Human Rights Council.

There is special legally binding protection for the civil, political, cultural, and social rights of children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Syria is a party and which generally defines a child as anyone under the age of 18.

The Convention provides that states parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury, or abuse, including sexual abuse.

Armed groups, as non-state actors, cannot formally become parties to international human rights treaties, but it is increasingly accepted, according to the Human Rights Council, that these groups are obligated to respect fundamental human rights insofar as they are part of customary international law, where these parties exercise effective control over parts of the country.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported on the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression on 4 June that Syrian children have been subjected to the worst forms of aggression, including murder and sexual violence, over the past 12 years.

As part of its monitoring of violations against Syrian children, the SNHR estimated that 539 Syrian children were subjected to sexual abuse incidents.

Most prominent human rights violations have been committed by the warring parties since March 2011, starting with harassment and exploitation, marrying off minors to fighters, and being subject to direct rape, the SNHR added.

Sheepish law ‘items’

Article 505 of the Syrian Penal Code states that “Whoever touches or flirts in an indecent manner with a minor under 15 years of age, male or female, without their consent, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one and a half years.”

The Syrian law criminalized verbal harassment in Article 506, which says, “Whoever offers a minor under 15 years of age engagement in an indecent act, or addresses one of them with indecent words, shall be punished with pejorative imprisonment for three days.” 

The Syrian Penal Code distinguishes between types of assault according to their degree, the most severe of which is rape, then comes harassment, indecent act, and exposure to public morals.

These crimes (except rape) are misdemeanors, meaning their punishment does not exceed three years in prison.

Regarding the judicial process, the Public Prosecution moves when a complaint is submitted, and the perpetrators are arrested if they are identified; then, the Public Prosecution refers the case to the investigating judge or court of the first instance due to the nature and description of the offense.

If the offense is criminal in the description, the case is referred to the referral judge after confirming the accusation, then to the criminal court, and cases of sexual harassment and rape are always criminal as described and transferred to the criminal court.

Devastating ‘stigma’

The UN Human Rights Council said in a conference room paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2018, entitled “I Lost My Dignity,” said the sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls, men, and boys has been a persistent issue in Syria since the uprising in 2011.

Regime forces and associated militias have perpetrated rape and sexual abuse of women and girls and occasionally men during ground operations, house raids to arrest protestors and perceived opposition supporters, and at checkpoints. After February 2012, these acts also constitute the war crimes of rape and other forms of sexual violence, including torture and outrages upon personal dignity.

“Rapes and other forms of sexual violence carried out by armed group members after February 2012 constitute the war crimes of rape and other forms of sexual violence, including torture and outrages upon personal dignity,” the UN rights council said.

These acts also contravene fundamental international human rights norms, including the right to life, liberty, and security of person, the right to freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, according to the paper.

The challenges involved in documenting sexual and gender-based violations include the social stigma that arises from these incidents, so not all cases are reported, whether during conflict or peacetime.

Many survivors, both female and male, remain in denial, and for girls, this means that any prospects for marriage are terminated, and they cannot safely access treatment and mental health services even when they are available.

Male victims also suffer from long-term problems in terms of physical and mental health, such as depression, as a result of the inability to admit to others what they have faced due to the fear of the perception of loss of masculinity that prevents them from fulfilling their traditional gender roles.

The UN Rights Council stressed the need to achieve justice and reparation for survivors and to provide adequate psychological support and rehabilitation, noting that the almost complete absence of treatment for these violations leads to the “sustainability of the cycle of violence” that manifests in shame and perpetuates grievances within the affected communities.

Civilians and armed men of the al-Bab city in the northern Aleppo countryside protest a rape crime against a minor girl - 30 May 2022 (Palmyra News Network)

Civilians and armed men of the al-Bab city in the northern Aleppo countryside protest a rape crime against a minor girl – 30 May 2022 (Palmyra News Network)

Survival begins with family

The family is the first nurturing environment for the child, which contributes to building his/her personality and walks with him/her step by step so that the child discovers himself/herself first and then the surrounding world.

Despite the importance of the hours a child spends at home, the child’s presence in the outside world is also essential, which makes him/her vulnerable to danger if the proper upbringing of the child does not protect him/her.

The role of the family lies in educating the child about harassment and sexual misconduct, starting with teaching the child how to protect own privacy and maintain respect for private space, in addition to teaching the child the parts of the body and the privacy of each of them, educational specialist Batoul Huzaifa told Enab Baladi.

The child should also be given information that satisfies his/her curiosity in a gradual manner, as awareness is linked to sexual education, and the information that the child receives from his/her family, if sufficient, will prevent him/her from searching for it outside the family, Huzaifa explained.

“Sexual education for a child can begin at the stage of going to kindergarten or school, taking into account the need to provide information depending on the child’s age and awareness,” she adds.

The educational specialist also stressed the need to teach the child how to deal with the various situations that he/she might be exposed to.

Steps may halt consequences

The importance of protecting a child from being subjected to harassment is equal to the importance of protecting him/her from the consequences of harassment and its psychological and physical effects on the child and his/her family.

The steps that come immediately after the crime of sexual abuse or exploitation are considered an essential factor in protecting the child from being persecuted by a societal “stigma” and to protect the child from the evil of guilt over a mistake he or she did not commit.

“First Response”

The physical impact of any accident that a child may be exposed to is not different from the sexual impact, and both require first aid that assesses the extent of the harm suffered by the child and quick and immediate solutions.

Psychologist Batoul Huzaifa said that providing first aid to the child is the first step that must be taken when discovering that the child has been exposed to this type of harm.

First aid includes ensuring the child’s physical and psychological safety and listening to him/her without any methods that could make the child feel that he/she is the culprit and not the victim or create a feeling of guilt within him/her.

Psychologist Alaa al-Dali said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the family and the environment play a major role in helping and supporting the child to overcome the traumatic event, stressing the need to avoid blaming the child or holding him/her responsible for the incident.

The child should also be allowed to describe what happened and the order of events and to express his/her feelings and what they saw, heard, and felt when exposed to the accident and after it to reduce emotional stress.

Al-Dali added that it is necessary to ask the child about his/her reaction and the way in which he/she protected themselves, and to praise what they did, regardless of its impact, to alleviate the child’s feeling of helplessness.

Psychological support

Among the most prominent signs and indicators that indicate that a child is being harassed are bouts of fear and panic, sensitivity, and constant crying, in addition to isolation and regressive behaviors, as the impact of the trauma is linked to the interaction of the parents and the environment with this event, says al-Dali.

Regression is the child’s return and tendency to an early stage of development or to a previous stage of stabilization, that is, for the child to be fixed at a specific stage of development without moving to the next stage and to return and retreat to an initial or primitive stage that enables the child to overcome it and master it previously. Hence, the growth proceeds in a regressive movement. 

According to the specialist, the child’s family needs to request support and direct support from a psychologist to know how to deal with the child and to obtain instructions that help in understanding the situation and how to deal with it to avoid any effects on the child in the present and the future.

It is also necessary to refer the child to a psychologist when these symptoms persist on a daily basis, which prevents him/her from continuing to perform daily tasks at home and with family or with others and affects life directly.

Why children do not tell about abuse? What is the effect?

Many children choose to remain silent rather than speak out for many reasons, and the effects of this behavior can be disastrous and exacerbate bullying situations.

The child is silent for many reasons, most notably the shame of his/her family and the feeling of guilt or fear of the perpetrator’s threats.

Fear and denial of the family can also be one of the reasons for silence, which makes building mutual trust between the family and the child an absolute necessity to reduce the consequences of these situations.

The child is considered part of an integrated society that affects and is affected by it, which makes the amount of harm that the child suffers after being harassed linked to the society’s handling of the matter, and the impact on the child is linked to the future impact on the entire society.

Psychologist Alaa al-Dali says that a child’s exposure to harassment, especially in the early years of life, can affect his/her tendencies and trends in their relations with the opposite sex in the future, as the childhood stage plays a key role in shaping the child’s tendencies and sexual orientation.

The impact on the child varies, depending on the family’s awareness and understanding, and the interaction of the community or the child’s surroundings with him/her, according to the educator Batoul Huzaifa.

She added that the law’s treatment of this crime and the extent of protection it can provide to the child before and after being harassed plays a key role in the effects of this incident.

It is assumed that neither the child nor the community will be affected by these incidents if the child can turn to the right people who are able to provide the necessary protection and support.

 

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