x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Attitudes about sexual violence must change

It is time to do away with the stigma associated with reporting sexual assault, and encourage more victims to come forward.

Sexual violence is so devastating for its victims that others might have a hard time comprehending the consequences of the crime. It is, however, essential that they do. For too long, stigma and silence have prevented societies from dealing with this scourge, both in punishing the perpetrators and caring for the victims.

In the UAE, that appears to be beginning to change. This week's conference on violence against women in Abu Dhabi offers a window into how pervasive sexual violence is, and better ways to prevent the crime and help the victims. The conference also offers data about incidences of violence against women - and the numbers are disturbing.

It is important to note that it is law enforcement that is bringing the data to light. By Dubai Police estimates, just one in 10 sex crimes against women in the UAE is reported. Dr Mohamed Murad Abdulla, the director of Dubai Police's decision-making support centre, says these grim figures, coupled with "a gap in police work and negligence", has created a culture in which women are afraid to report crimes, and many men believe they can commit abuses without accountability. Needless to say, both perceptions are toxic.

Police, along with health-care providers, social workers, counsellors and advocates, are making every effort to address this pervasive social challenge. But lowering the incidences of sexual violence in the UAE, or anywhere for that matter, will require action. Better law enforcement is a start, but just as important is education and a cultural shift to erase the stigma for victims.

Prevention requires strong laws, tough enforcement and a fair judiciary. Dr Abdulla's comments are encouraging in this regard. Yet other reforms are needed. For instance, too often women reporting abuse are themselves subject to legal action; in rape cases, victims are often accused of sex outside wedlock even before the rape charges are resolved. Additionally, UAE courts have a poor record of ensuring victims anonymity. In a tight-knit society, protecting the identity of a victim is crucial.

Even with strong law enforcement, ending violence against women starts with teaching a respect for women at an early age. The Sexual Violence Research Initiative, a WHO-affiliated organisation, reasons that "men's use of violence is generally a learned behaviour, rooted in the ways that boys and men are socialised".

Boys, and the men they grow to become, must be taught to respect women as they would respect their mothers, sisters and daughters. Women must not be afraid to assert their right to be safe from such abuse, but equally men must uphold that right as if it were their own.