x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A lack of education leaves children vulnerable to abuse

Children must feel safe to speak up on many issues. The question is: are adults ready to communicate with them in an open and honest manner?

Innocence is the first word that most people would use to describe their children. Little ones are totally dependant on adults to teach them and hold their hands during tough times as they begin to understand how our world works.

But what if that innocence is lost? Adults - or older children - may take advantage of this lack of knowledge. In the worst cases, this can manifest itself as physical or sexual abuse.

In the last couple of years, our newspaper headlines seem to have a weekly story of a child being abused, whether by a relative, a family friend or just some sick person who takes his or her illness out on a child.

The horrific case of an 8-year-old girl, allegedly tortured to death by her father, has brought the issue to prominence - the Federal Cabinet approved child-protection legislation this month known as "Wadeema's law" in memory of that girl.

Legislation is important, but there is a social and cultural component as well. Because children are often kept in the dark about sensitive subjects, they can't identify a threat, or have no way to report abuse if it does occur.

Traditionally our societies in the Arab world do not teach us anything about sex education, even to teenagers. When I was in secondary school, the biology textbooks had the word "sex" blacked out, even if it was in reference to what gender a person was. That in itself was a form of ignorance - by the time I was about 12, the internet was readily available anyway.

I always found this awkward, because many parents just expected a young person to know these things when "the time was right", which meant by the time someone got married. Most girls would rather their mothers, aunts or cousins talk to them about these subjects, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

Curiosity will always get the better of people - what they don't learn from parents or family members will be learnt by whatever channels are available. No thanks to reality shows and music videos today - sex and everything related is flaunted in our faces daily. If children don't learn the facts of life, there are plenty of distorted viewpoints out there.

The words commonly used by families when children ask about their bodies or anything physical is haram or aayb, which basically translate to taboo or vice. Topics such as these get brushed under the rug.

This lack of information can have frightening implications for children's safety.

There have even been incidents where parents ignored signs or even complaints that their children had been molested. To make matters worse, there aren't enough counsellors or child psychologists to help abused children overcome the trauma they have been through. But realising there is a problem is key.

As the eldest of four children and a mother, my responsibility is to ensure that my siblings and my child are protected at all times. My "trust no one" concept may be a bit extreme, but when you hear stories of abuse, the overriding priority has to be my loved ones' safety.

Our mentality that discourages discussing taboo subjects must change. Open lines of communications will help to make our children more aware, spare them traumatisation and even help them to protect themselves.

Children must feel safe to speak to us about these many issues. The question is: are adults ready to communicate with them in an open and honest manner?


Aida Al Busaidy is a social affairs columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show

On Twitter: @AidaAlB