x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The silence of the victims leaves sex crimes in the dark

Emiratis and others engaged in building the nation know that developing societies must sometimes contend with unpleasant issues. Sex crimes are one such issue.

Emiratis and others engaged in building the nation know that developing societies must sometimes contend with unpleasant issues. Sex crimes are one such issue. In recent years, reporting of sex crimes in the media has been increasingly sensationalised, rather than focused on a presentation of the facts. This has arguably lead to a numbness regarding this troubling issue. There must be an even greater awareness of sex crimes in our society, but there is also a need for a more educational approach towards crime reporting if this is to occur.

Sex crimes are still considered a taboo topic in many neighbouring Gulf states. And wherever sex crimes are reported, they should be treated delicately for the sake of the victims of sexual and emotional abuse. But as a journalist from an international media organisation stated, when stories on sex crimes or many other taboo subjects appear in the UAE media, "they receive an abnormal amount of global attention. There are few countries whose sex crimes have been as widely reported."

That stories which touch on the region's social taboos receive extra attention is both good and bad: bad because it risks sensationalising the subject; good because it demonstrates the Emirati willingness to confront them. For its part, the judiciary's dealing with sex crimes indicates an increasing awareness that good governance must involve not only economic issues but also social ones. But for the judiciary to act - and for the media to responsibly report - victims of sex crimes must be willing to speak to the authorities. Many crimes go unreported due to societal pressure and fear of shame, regardless of gender and nationality. The abused often feel that they get doubly victimised: during the act of abuse itself, and then when the authorities sometimes doubt a victim's story.

Part of the reason for this may stem from the conservative nature of traditional Islamic societies. The segregation of the sexes in schools and at social events, for one thing, can deepen frustration. Men can develop an unhealthy obsession with sex as a result. Beyond seeking judicial relief and taking their cases to the media, victims of sexual crimes are finding that social organisations can offer them timely assistance. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC) is one such source.

A case manager there told me that she dealt with dozens of women daily, all victims of abduction, rape and trafficking. For the victims of domestic violence, whose perpetrators are their husbands, the issues have an additional layer of complexity. A caseworker has also told me that most of the women suffer from not only psychological abuse, but also psycho-emotional violence. Organisations such as the DFWAC and its shelters are much needed, and I suspect that an increasing number of victims of sexual crimes will seek their services as they are made more aware of their presence.

Although these shelters provide important assistance, it saddens me to know that there will always be some crimes that go unreported due to the fear of stigma and loss of reputation. Too many people are unaware of the efforts the authorities take to protect their identity. In particular, the Dubai authorities have a good track record in maintaining confidentiality and protecting their identity from the media - if that is what they wish.

Still, there is a long way to go. As Wedaad Lootah of the Dubai Courts told me, the media still fails to report crimes such as incest and molestation. A journalist at a local newspaper argued that this was due to an inability to speak to the victims, who "are generally too afraid to speak out, which can leave the coverage without a vital perspective". The reservations of victims can be detrimental to their own interests: when the media does not have all the facts in a particular case, the vacuum can be filled with sensationalism. I know that there are also those who may contend with the fact that the very act of reporting sex crimes goes against societal traditions. But when it comes to the violation of human rights, no culture, tradition or religion should deprive a victim of the means to redress their grievances.

While I appreciate the light that responsible media have shone on sex crimes, they are still underreported. Too many victims remain hidden in the dark. The social value of speaking out will only be realised as more victims see the merits of doing so, as sex crimes are treated with sensitivity in the media and their perpetrators are punished in court. Maryam al Hamly is an Emirati advocate for women's issues working in the Dubai Media Affairs office