x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Alarming rise in sexual harassment cases in UAE, lawyers say

Lawyers say the rise in cases can be attributed to a decline in religious devotion, lack of parental control and unrestricted use of the internet by children.

ABU DHABI // An increase in the number of cases of sexual harassment of women is alarming lawyers and psychologists.

They warn that a decline in religious devotion, lack of parental control and unrestricted use of the internet by children are contributing to the increase.

The most recent study suggests 4.5 per cent of women in the Middle East have been victims of sexual harassment, but it is thought the true figures could be much higher because of a “glaring gap” in official statistics.

Health experts urge women to report cases and warn that, without seeking professional support, some victims could develop severe anxiety and depression.

“There are so many cases and these cases are increasing every year. They are young and old and they victimise the young and old. We can’t say one specific age group is committing the crime, or one nationality because it is spread,” said Ali Al Abadi, an Emirati lawyer.

The number of young people in court facing charges related to sexual harassment is also increasing, he said.

Mr Al Abadi called for more supervision of children, especially in schools, and said parents should restrict their children’s use of the internet.

“Parents need to know how their children are using technology. Most youth have an empty life, nothing to do and they don’t know better,” he said.

“These cases take place in public, in schools mostly, or malls or parties. In public places, but secretly.”

Another lawyer, Ibrahim Al Tamimi, said: “Sexual harassment has many sides. Any words said or sent, hand gestures or unwanted phone calls are considered harassment. Restricting someone’s physical or emotional privacy, or anything that makes the person affected uncomfortable or insulted is also a part of harassment.”

Legally, Mr Al Tamimi said, there was no specific criminal offence of sexual harassment, but such behaviour could be prosecuted as an offence against moral values. “In most cases, the criminals will be given six months to a year in prison. There is also a possibility of paying up to Dh10,000 in fines.”

Dr Deema Sihweil, a clinical psychologist in Dubai, said many factors influenced such cases.

“A lack of education, family history, previous trauma, cultural pressures, peer pressures, psychological disorders, drug and alcohol use are all factors,” she said.

“With such a mix of cultures, traditions and religions, many women can feel sexually harassed by their co-workers, caregivers, or ‘friends’, when the men strongly believe that they are not causing or intending to cause any harm.”

Many of the perpetrators have a history of sexual trauma that tends to manifest in sexual harassment, said Dr Sihweil, director of the Carbone Clinic in Dubai Healthcare City. Some women are able to shrug off the incidents but others feel invaded, she said.

“Women can feel a sense of guilt and shame, wondering or believing if it was something about herself that provoked such harassment.

“Victims could experience nightmares, panic attacks, relationship difficulties, lack of trust and even major depression.”

Dr Sihweil emphasised the importance of reporting any sexual harassment to the authorities.

A study by The Lancet published last month revealed that last year one in 14 women globally was subjected to some kind of sexual harassment or violence.

In the Middle East, the study showed 4.5 per cent of women were victims of sexual harassment by non-partners, one of the lowest numbers in the study, at least in part because of a lack of statistics from the authorities.

Prof Naeemah Abrahams of the South African Medical Research Council, one of the research team, said: “There was no data from the Middle East. This was a glaring gap – population studies have not been conducted in this region. It is important that governments not ignore this but rather look at this as a wake-up call.”

aalkhoori@thenational.ae