ABU DHABI // Women who are the victims of rape in the UAE do not always report the attacks because of social stigma and the fear they themselves could end up being prosecuted, according to lawyers involved in such cases.
In many cases the women are embarrassed, afraid of ending up on trial, or they fear authorities will uncover other infractions such as visa breaches or drinking alcohol without a licence, said Iman Ouaddani, a lawyer with the Abu Dhabi-based firm Al Otaiba. Arab women are also less likely to report sexual assaults to police owing to concerns that the allegations could damage their family's reputation and because of the distress involved in describing the attack to investigators, said a Dubai lawyer, Mohammed Abdullah al Redha.
The lawyers varied in their estimates of how many attacks are not reported: Ms Ouaddani estimated 70 per cent while Mr al Redha put the figure at 30 per cent. Women also worry that other people will find out, and that they may get into trouble with their employers and possibly lose their jobs, said experts. Ms Ouaddani also said victims were often discouraged by language barriers, fearing they will not be able to make themselves understood if they do not speak Arabic.
"An attack like this could embarrass the family," Mr al Redha said. "If [victims] speak to the police they will have to give a statement to the police, a statement to the laboratory and a statement to prosecutors. "[The woman] will be put off coming forward because she will feel each time she tells people what happened, it will feel like a new rape." Mr al Redha was speaking after details emerged about the case of an Australian woman who was sentenced to 12 months in jail in Fujairah last year after going to police to report that she had been drugged and gang-raped.
Judges rejected her claim and instead convicted her of having sex outside marriage. Her three alleged attackers were also prosecuted and jailed for 12 months. The woman was released from custody in February after serving eight months. She has since returned to Australia and launched a campaign to promote awareness of what she alleges was unfair treatment. Afra al Basti, the head of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which offers counselling to rape and abuse victims, said that there was a move afoot to boost the current support systems for victims of sex crimes.
"At the moment we are working with Dubai Police, the health authority and prosecutors to try and improve the protection offered to women and children of domestic violence and assaults." In October about 60 police officers who work with victims of sex crimes took part in a two-day training session on handling vulnerable witnesses. "Most of the women are afraid to report cases of rape," Ms al Basti claims. "And if they do report them to police, they do it two or three days after and they come with no evidence."
She said she would support a review of current legislation designed to protect women and children, and also backed a call for the establishment of a federal body to manage policy in this area. When asked about any under-reporting of rape, a police spokesman said: "Any reported crime is investigated thoroughly by the Abu Dhabi Police and rape is no exception. We have experienced male and female officers in all areas of the force and would treat any complaint very seriously."
Shoaib Ahli, a prosecutor from Dubai Public Prosecution, added: "In a rape the technical evidence is thoroughly examined; DNA, forensics and a full investigation is made. "If a person claims rape, we rely on the technical evidence and examine the testimony. If we do not find corroborating evidence we cannot enforce the rape charge." Angie Conroy, the policy officer at Rape Crisis England and Wales, a UK-based support group, said there was "no bigger deterrent" to coming forward to make a rape allegation than the fear of a potential prosecution.
"No victim of rape can turn up at a police station and prove without a shadow of a doubt that they have been raped," she said. "If women think there is a danger they could be sent to prison unless they can 100 per cent prove it, obviously it's going to stop them from going and making a complaint. "It is a difficult enough process to go through to report a rape, without having the threat of prison hanging over you.
A lawyer in Dubai, Hassan Matar, believes women should not be discouraged from reporting rapes and urged them to have faith in the UAE justice system. "Rape is a serious crime and any woman who is raped or sexually abused must report it to the police straight away. "Forensics can determine whether sex was consensual or not." Dr Rima al Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University and a specialist in women's issues, said even in the West women often did not report rape to avoid medical tests that could make them feel even more exposed.
She also did not think rape was significantly less reported in the UAE than other countries, but added that without proper statistics and studies it was hard to tell. There are, however, "additional pressures in the UAE", she believes. "If women hear stories of women being arrested when they report a rape, whether or not it's true, then it will add to the fear. "Also here, there is the fear that if you go to the police and open a case they might look into whether she has had other relationships. That might create issues that she doesn't want to deal with. She might be worried about what questions might be asked. Because in the system here, consensual sexual intercourse [outside marriage] is illegal. That could become an underlying reason not to report a rape."
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Loveday Morris, Awad Mustafa and Marten Youssef