2:43pm , Tuesday 19th January 2021

Present Legislations Exacerbate It Sexual Abuse of Children Increase Threefold in Damascus Poverty, Distress and Lack of Sex Awareness Make it Happen

6 August 2007

Fatima was only ten when she lost her virginity.Yet, she did not know that what was coming would be more agonizing. Her step father, who molested her day after day during her childhood period, made her feel powerless by threatening to kill her should she report him to the authorities. What makes it worse, was that after it was discovered that her virginity was robbed from her, she was blamed for it! The price she for being offended, was to be thrown out of the house, only to become an easy prey for other child sex offenders.

Today, Fatima, who is accused of being a prostitute, is locked up amongst other ‘felons’ at The Girls’ Institute for Social Education.

The 15 year-old teenager is living a new life with 17 other girls, detained on various charges, including theft, prostitution, homelessness. Fatima’s fate could have been quite different should there have been centers to take care of girls and women who have been sexually assaulted.

It has been seven years into the Third Millennium, and Syria still does not have shelters to protect the basic rights of these females– even though the number of sexual abuse of children in Damascus has tripled during the past three years. IT is worth noting that this is taking place even though a two-year-old resolution was set up by the government to establish such centers.

“A decision to prevent the launch of such institutions has been implicitly taken; the reason is to brush under the carpet ‘unmentionable’ issues which are considered taboo,” community activist and lawyer, Maha Al Ali, said in this respect.

Fatima’s story does not vary much in detail from similar stories. The only differences might be that some abused children were fortunate enough to reach the court of law, while others remained and still remain behind closed doors. Testimonies versus figures
According to the head of the department of Forensic Medicine in Damascus, Dr. Issam Khoury, child molestation, in reality, is not consistent with official statistics.  “Scores of incidents stay in the closet, and those reported are very few,” he disclosed. However, figures published by the magazine ‘Black and White’, one month after looking through pathology records at the department, indicated an increase in the rate of these incidents.  Accordingly, the number of sexually abused children increased from 25 in the year 2004, to 99 in the year 2005, and to 189 in 2006 from 99 in 2005. During the three-year period, the rate of girls and boys who have been molested were relatively close (56.6% for boys and 43.4% for girls in 2006). And according to medical reports and supporting statistics, touching and fondling was  the highest (69.84% in 2006), followed by cases of reported droopiness of anal rectum due to the repeated act  of rape (16.4% in 2006) and tearing of the hymen also reuslting from being raped (13.76% also in 2006).

Dr Khoury went on to say that “at least, five cases are reported daily to the department, due to a growing number of child molestation incidents in the past years.”

When tracking the percentage of sexual abuse based on geographic location, Al Tadamon had the greatest stake (a relatively poor, densely populated and diverse neighborhood, which, in point of fact, is a copy of most Syrian provinces). In 2006, sexual abuse in that area reached 14.8%. Following it, was the conservative and traditional neighborhood of Al Midan, which reported 7.07% also in 2006.

Meanwhile, a professor of social sciences at the University of Damascus, Dr. Tawfiq Dauood, warned  that the above figures were a serious indication of a phenomenon that needs utmost attention, adding that “the Syrian society is changing at many levels; and this is particularly visible in the capital. Most of the new comers have settled on the outskirts, creating a mixed environment, which has become a hub for different forms of transgressions, mainly physical abuses and theft, which is usually instigated by poverty and need.”

Therefore, it all starts with a dissatisfaction with the environment, but varies from one area to another. Noting this, psychologist, Dr. Tayseer Hassoun, confirmed that almost 70% of the patients admitted to his clinic, were sexually abused during their childhood, who came mainly from poverty-stricken, densely populated and conservative backgrounds.Back to figures and studies While the Ministry of Justice lacks any statistics on child abuse, the existing figures, little as they are, come as a result of individual effort. Nevertheless, these endeavors are discouraged, time and again, by the culture and traditions that honor ‘secretiveness for fear of retribution’.

In his study in 2002, psychiatrist Dr. Mutaa Barakat, distributed questionnaires on 400 students, males and females, at the University of Damascus; only 100 answered. The study showed that 40% of those tested, have had a sexual (incident) during childhood, but never reported it. Interestingly, the ratio of tested children under 12, who molested younger children, was 16%, whereas, the ratio of tested children, above 12, who molested juniors, was 15%. In a parallel line, the percentage of those tested, and were abused by older children, when they were under 12, was 40%, and for those above 12, it was 21%. The study concluded that 76%, of those tested, have been sexually abused before reaching 18.

Barakat said he was persecuted by the authorities who tried to dissuade him. But, despite its narrow target, the survey was an eye opener.

“Anyone subjected to this kind of abuse, is fragile and vulnerable, and therefore, could be easily tempted by various immoralities and misdemeanors.” Barakat’s generalization is that “Girls, for example, become prostitutes and boys thieves and losers.” He added that “this is caused by early, but deviant, sexual maturity, which, in turn, builds up strong feelings to harm oneself or others.”

This is apparent in a number of case studies carried out in 2006 by the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs with the theme ‘Violence and its Impact on Girls’. The survey covered the Girls’ Institution (27 girls), and (5) resident girls from Sisters of Al Ra’i Al Saleh. It indicated that the majority of girls charged with prostitution at the Institution, have been sexually abused during childhood; the perpetrator was mainly a member of the family (incest); and in some cases, the underlying motive was trafficking in girls, and the disadvantaged ones ended in the streets. According to the study, most of the abused girls came from lower economic and educational classes. Same old stories
Like other disadvantaged children of her age, Huda dreams that one day she will wake up clear and clean from all the hurtful memories that haunt her. She still recalls the scene of her fresh blood on the bed sheet, with her father lying next to her, after stripping her clothes off and after robbing away her virginity.

Huda’s dad told the judge he believes his daughter’s body is his own property; and “what really counts, is quenching his lust.” Such accounts are reported every day, and most often, the assailant is a close member of the family, which is another reason to keep it secret. A field study conducted in 2006, revealed the following data: the assailant was primarily a relative; secretiveness on part of the abused child reported 43.48%; the most common form of abuse was touching and fondling (45.47%), followed by displaying pornographic materials to the child (23.14%), and forced sexual act and foreplay, including kissing (27.29%). The study was part of a thesis for psychology graduates at the University of Damascus, and it involved 77 participants. Sex education totally ignored “Rehabilitation centers to treat sexually abused children, following arbitration measures do not exist. We desperately need social care houses in every area and neighborhood,” said an activist in the Syrian Women’s League, Sabah Al Hallaq.
Another expert, a professor at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Damascus, considered  that “the milieu in which a disadvantaged child is raised could aggravate abuse further, particularly in the absence of sex awareness.” Iman Haydar said  that “according to the prevailing system of social upbringing, a child is totally unaware of the basics of sex.”
According to the head of the Center for Islamic Studies. “many clerics are considering incorporating sex education into their school curricula, as a first step to explore a viable way of instructing children on the subject, while at the same time, staying within the boundaries of religion.” Dr. Muhamad Habash said he believes that the “religious rhetoric calls for alleviating injustice and forbids any form of aggression against people”. He stressed the need to establish campaigns that promote religious and sexual awareness. Reverend Nizar Mabardi had the same opinion. He expressed fear over the “increase of such deviations, and demanded an immediate solution to the problem.” He suggested an “integration of sex education in the standard curricula as well as upgrading legislation regulating child protection.”
Close to, Yet Far From …
The abuser is punished according to Articles 491, 492, 493 and 945 of the Penal Code. Attorney Maha Al Ali, explained that these laws “were outdated”, (1949), and therefore, should be modified. No significant amendments have been introduced, except for minor adjustments in 1979. She said the period of punishment which is basically, between 5 and 15 years with hard labor, depending on the nature of the felony, is an inadequate penalty for a crime of such degree. She also added that in most cases, “the assailant is pronounced not guilty for lack of conclusive evidence.”

Al Ali went on to say that “the related law has loopholes, and therefore, is incompatible. For example, by virtue of the Syrian Penal Code, should the plaintiff’s parents’ waiver their right, the court will end prosecution of the defendant. Besides, the law does not bind any person to report any abuse he observes against a child.”

Judge Safar made it clear that the “procedure observed by the criminal court needs to be improved, namely, the introduction of hi-tech systems, including video cassette recordings. The child, as such, would be able to give his testimony without having to see the aggressor.”
Many ‘Incomplete’ Agreements
After ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1993, Syria joined the optional protocol of the Convention in 2002, addressing the issues of child trafficking and exploitation in the porn industry. In 2005, the Government kicked off a nation-wide campaign to protect children in collaboration with community groups. Some outstanding terms called for by the campaign, included setting up family shelters, and launching a hot line through which a child can call to report any kind of abuse or physical aggression. These clauses, however, did not go into effect, as Judge Abdel Ahad Safar stated.

On the other hand, the head of the Syrian Commission on Family Affairs, admitted a commitment on part of the government to protect the children, notwithstanding a postponement in enforcing some of the said plans. Mona Ghanem cited a “tenth five-year strategy aimed at ending every form of violence against children, considering it a national priority.”

Meanwhile, specialists assigned to the above Commission, agreed it was a challenging project in a conservative society that guards taboos and does not discuss issues like sexual abuse. For example, a study carried out by the Commission, in coordination with UNICEF, caused fury and dissent among many parties for just mentioning child abuse. It was the first official survey conducted on 400 children, including boys and girls. Director of the team, Amira Ahmad, had to edit a question, whereby, instead of explicitly citing sex issues, she pointed out to them covertly and with caution. A piece of news… signed with young blood The news as cited by Al Thawra daily in its 13351 edition, appeared as follows: (The Criminal Court of Law ruled against Mustapha Muhamad Al Chemali with the death sentence, for tempting Ruqaya with a bag of potato chips, raped her from behind, then strangled her, smashed her head with his feet, removed her eyes and put them in a sack which he threw in the street).

“She is dead now, but relieved,” said Fatima upon hearing the sad news. This is only one of the many cases of children who lost their lives to sexual abuse.

(This report was compiled and prepared by the Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, arij.net; with supervision and assistance of Thabet Salem)


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