Source: Daily Star-Lebanon News - 27 November 2015
By: Nadine Makarem
BEIRUT: More than 4 percent of children in Lebanon have been victims of sexual abuse and the matter has been considered a cultural taboo for too long, a report released by the Ministry of Social Affairs said. “Though there is still a wall of silence surrounding the subject. It is a reality in our society,” said Randa Bou Hamdan, general director of the Social Affairs Ministry.
The ministry Thursday released the National Study on Sexual Violence Against Children in Lebanon, in collaboration with the Higher Council for Children and non-profit organization Dar al-Amal, and with the support of International NGOs Diakonia and Ecpat France. The event, which took place at the headquarters of the Beirut Order of Physicians, comes on the occasion of Universal Children’s Day.
The study, conducted by main researchers Dr. Bassima al-Munla and Maher Abu Shakra and assisting researchers Dr. Susan Menhem and Alaa Nehme, used a random sample of 2,162 children from different social and cultural backgrounds, between 9 and 17 years old – the age span most prone to sexual abuse. The study spanned children attending private and public institutions, as well as those who are employed or otherwise not enrolled in school.
The study found that out of 2,162 children, 89 were victims of sexual abuse (48 girls and 41 boys) – approximately 4.1 percent. Of these, 47.2 percent were children enrolled in public schools, and 21.3 percent attended private schools, while 60.4 percent of the victims were aged 10 to 14.
The results also highlighted the most common locations where abuse took place. Some 66.7 percent of victims reported they had been abused within a home environment (not specifically their own household). “We notice that male victims reported being abused in public spaces more than females,” said Munla. “This is because families worry about young girls and shelter them at home, whereas young boys have more freedom to move about.”
The old phrase “never take candy from strangers” was found to be sadly fitting – the study identified candy and gifts as the most common methods of luring children, though this was not limited to strangers. People involved in the life of the child, , whether in the family, the school or the neighborhood, were one major type of predator identified by the report; individuals involved in exploitation networks or human trafficking were another. “It is important to realize that predators are in our homes, at our schools, among us,” Bou Hamdan warned.
The role of technology in easing the way for sexual predators was also emphasized throughout the report. “Violence has become easily permissible with the large spread of information technology and the lack of proper control and oversight,” said Bou Hamdan. Online abuse is one of many various forms of sexual exploitation, including verbal abuse (the most common form of abuse, which 43 percent of children claimed to have experienced), physical contact without performing a sexual act, visual abuse, and direct sexual acts.
Munla also said that “there are specific circumstances that make certain children more prone to abuse than others,” and suggested focusing on alleviating such conditions as a step toward protecting children. The report deduced that children that are physically or morally abused within the household, working or not enrolled in school, consuming drugs or alcohol, suffering from chronic diseases or disabilities, spending little time at home, feeling neglected by family, or who maintain social relationships without supervision are all more susceptible to sexual abuse.
The study provided recommendations to decrease the occurrence of abuse and to support victims. From a legal perspective, the Lebanese penal code related to perpetrators of sexual abuse should be amended to increase sentences. In parallel, child protection laws should impose jurisdiction within the household and over family members, and medical ethics laws should be amended to improve awareness regarding cases of sexual abuse.
Within the household, the traditional conception of “nurture” should be developed to allow open discussion about abuse. Parents should play a role in raising awareness and teaching their children methods for avoiding exploitation
“I stress the importance of these recommendations, and I look forward to coordinating and working together to put together advocacy campaigns,” said Diakonia country representative Rodolph Gebrael, addressing the ministry and his counterparts.
The study based its data on the definition of “sexual abuse” used by the World Health Organization: “The involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violate the laws or social taboos of society. Children can be sexually abused by adults or other children who are – by virtue of their age or stage of development – in a position of responsibility, trust, or power over the victim.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 27, 2015, on page 4.