A new study casts some light on the crime of child sexual abuse, which exists here as in every society. But more study, and more education, is needed
In child sex abuse shame and silence help the criminals
Mahra's family, like many Emirati families, had a male driver. He used to drive her and her sister to and from school - but he also repeatedly touched the girls inappropriately. They were too young to understand what was going on, but not too young to remember.
Recalling this recently, my friend Mahra - not her real name - told me she realised only years later that what the driver had been doing, over three years, was assault.
By the time she told her mother about these incidents, the driver had gone home to his country and could not be held accountable.
How many more victims are out there, too scared to tell anyone?
Sexual abuse is not an epidemic that happens only on dark streets, or a crime committed only by strangers. It happens more frequently in schools and in homes, done by people the children know and trust. But many of these cases don't get reported.
The first nationwide study on child abuse, recently released by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, found that 74 per cent of those who said they had been subjected to sexual abuse said the perpetrators had been known to them. The survey covered nearly 3,000 Emirati pupils in government schools across the country, aged 10 to 18.
Three per cent said they had been "touched in sensitive places" in school, with 0.7 per cent saying this happened frequently. Four per cent said they had been "kissed or hugged" in school sometimes, and 1.7 per cent said that had happened frequently.
These percentages may seem low but no child deserves this. "Taking into consideration our culture, our religion and our care for the children, even this percentage, we must reduce it," Dr Fadwa Al Mughairbi, a professor of biological psychology at UAE University, told The National.
The survey, developed by the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, was modified "to fit within the cultural context of the UAE," as Dr Mona Al Bahar, the foundation's assistant director for care and rehabilitation, told The National. Same questions about sex abuse at home were not included, due to cultural sensitivities. "Some of the words, like, 'did you get sexually abused by your parents?' we don't want," Dr Al Bahar said.
And so there is no comprehensive data on sexual abuse at home or in other places, except school. But we all know that this exists, here as in every society. In Abu Dhabi this year, for instance, a man with a history of alcohol abuse was accused of raping his 14-year-old daughter, who told the court he had also assaulted her previously. How many of these cases stay behind closed doors?
In our society many parents do not educate children about the danger of sexual abuse. It is still a taboo subject that children "will learn about when they grow up".
But how would children know that kisses, hugs and touches from strangers are inappropriate? After all, family members hug and kiss them all the time. And how would a child know that some forms of touching are not acceptable even from family members? Young children are often too innocent to recognise the problem, or too afraid to speak up.
The same Dubai Foundation study found a reluctance on the part of children to report any form of abuse. Only 55 per cent said they would be ready to report if they faced any form of abuse. And 71 per cent said they don't know that abuse-reporting hotlines exist. Why not? We need an in-depth study to explore the reasons.
On the other hand adults, who are more aware of the issue, often remain silent, so that many sexual assaults go unreported, even after children tell their parents. This is especially true when the victim is a girl. "What would people say about us?", parents ask, or "who would want to marry our daughter if they knew she was 'touched' by a stranger?".
But how can we stop such crimes if victims remained silent and perpetrators go unpunished? How can we educate children? How can we protect them? Are those we expect to care for our children really trustworthy? Every parent needs answers to these questions.
Reporting on child abuse is a shared responsibility. Once it is enacted "Wadeema's law," named for an 8-year-old tortured to death by her father and his girlfriend, will require anyone dealing with children to report any abuse.
In 2011 a father was sentenced to two years in prison for allowing the rape of his own daughters, ages 7 and 6. He took them to Qatar to a friend's house, where his brother raped them. The father was also fined Dh1,000 for not reporting the crime.
That was an extreme case, but lesser irresponsible actions - sending children to school with strangers, for example, or allowing them to mix unsupervised with older friends - can result in serious harm to children.
The problem will not be solved without breaking the taboo against discussing these matters openly. We need more comprehensive studies on sexual abuse against children. And even more importantly, we need to educate children about the possible dangers because, as we all know, prevention is far better than cure.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui