x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Help for sexual assault now a phone call away

Dubai Police have dedicated a new hotline for the reporting of sexual abuse. As important as this measure is, we hope it becomes only one aspect of a far bigger campaign.

Sexual abuse has for years been a taboo subject in the Middle East. Increasingly, however, the issue is being brought out into the open with officials encouraging victims to come forward with their ordeals, and press charges against their assailants.

Over the last few years, several police initiatives have been launched to protect the identity of callers who report sexual abuse in the UAE. And now, Dubai Police have dedicated a new hot-line where the public can anonymously report cases.

We hope this protection will increase the number of reported cases - in survey after survey, women especially, but victims in general, say they shy away from reporting for fear they themselves will be unfairly judged. But we also hope this measure becomes only one aspect of a far bigger campaign.

The Ministry of Interior's Social Support Department says they deal with such cases with strict confidence. Aman, a hotline for Abu Dhabi police, and Al Ameen, in Dubai, were set up for similar purposes. Yet it is not clear how the new service announced at the weekend will be different. Residents should be made aware of what service to call for what complaint.

Confidentiality is of course the most promising aspect of this new hotline. Anonymous reporting should always be permitted, especially in cases that involve family members. Child abuse, for example, is often carried out by family members and reporting such cases to the police remains socially unacceptable and dangerous. The new service, if follow-up investigations are handled discretely, could empower those who would otherwise be afraid to report abuse.

And while care should be taken to identify malicious false reporting, all cases deserve to be investigated seriously. Child abuse cases, in particular, are often falsely reported during family disputes such as divorce proceedings and custody battles. But the recognition of such trends should not be at the expense of protecting real victims. Officers, equipped with interviewing skills and evidence gathering techniques, should follow up any allegation of abuse with vigour.

Anonymous reporting is certainly a step in the right direction, but what's needed most critically is to ensure that the legal system protects victims - rather than prosecutes them. Until this happens, no amount of 24-hour hotlines will ensure justice for victims of this heinous crime.