x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Parents fear for their children as abuse comes to light

It is time to abandon the fear and stigma associated with child abuse.

'Everyone is scared. We don't know what will happen to our children when we put them on the bus or let them anywhere out of our sight." This is a common fear that was voiced by one parent recently, responding to reports about recent attacks on children. One girl was allegedly raped on a school bus; a boy was killed in the bathroom of a mosque.

The latter case involving Moosa Mukhtiar Ahmed gained so much national attention and has seen some closure, although not comfort, for the family, after the murderer was recently executed. In the case of the little girl, the ordeal is still ongoing.

In her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou gives us an insight into how a child is affected by abuse and the terror, confusion and incomprehensibility of the experience. She recalls her own traumatic ordeal of being raped at the age of eight:

 

'If you scream, I'll kill you. And if you tell, I'm gonna kill Bailey.' I could tell he meant what he said, but I couldn't understand why he wanted to kill my brother neither of us had done anything to him. And then … I thought I died.

 

These revelations would come decades later after Angelou decided to write about her life. She was extremely brave to do so - most victims of sexual violence are often too terrified to tell about their ordeals. Instead, they carry a burden of fear and horrible possibilities with them, trying to push the experience so far down into their psyche to forget it.

But there is another reason why victims of molestation or harassment, and their parents, do not report crimes. There is a culture here that can bully victims into silence.

Who will believe me? Who will listen? What will they do to me? Will it affect my grades or how I will be treated at school? These are the questions that many victims have to consider. One high school senior told me: "My school would do everything possible to make sure that such a thing would be kept quiet."

Sexual predators understand this dynamic all too well and count on it as they plan their crimes.

Since the attack on the little girl on the school bus, there have been proposals that parents ride along. There should be at least one woman on every bus carrying children, as is often practised. Schools have asked parents to volunteer until female attendants can be hired.

In one poor taste editorial in a local newspaper, the writer joked that female attendants hadn't already been hired because officials were concerned about a "love story" developing between drivers and attendants. It was an unnecessary twist on a heart-wrenching story, and could discourage parents from asking for female attendants.

And crimes of child abuse are not only happening on the bus, but on school grounds also. Parents feel like they have to teach their children self-defence. "Hit him as hard as you can and run" is now just survival advice, and I've told my own daughters the same. Just as important, children have to be told that they don't have to be afraid no matter what somebody tells them.

Angelou was threatened that if she told anyone, her brother would be hurt. I can say with absolute surety: if anybody harms my children, it is they who should be afraid.

Police have also taken a more serious line against child abuse. A new task force and the recent convictions should serve as a warning to predators that their crimes will not be met with silence any longer. It is clearly a work in progress, but there has been some progress nonetheless.

Angelou has had a chance to move beyond her ordeal, and help thousands of readers in the process. Others have not been so fortunate. The parents of poor little Moosa must still be devastated by their loss, but by having the courage to come forward and insist on justice, they set an example for the rest of society. We will no be quiet about our childrens' safety any longer.

 

Maryam Ismail is a teacher who divides her time between the United States and the UAE