The ordeal of an eight-year old girl last year highlighted the scourge of child abuse and inspired Wadeema's Law. Less public, but no less worrying, is when children themselves are the abusers. Vivian Nereim reports
When child abuses child: dealing with the family dilemma in the UAE
SHARJAH // Sexual abuse of children by other children is more prevalent than many believe, but a lack of openness about the subject is denying both victims and perpetrators the professional help they need.
"A lot of cases don't come to anybody's attention: no police, no therapists," said Dr Hussain Maseeh, a social-care expert at the Dubai Community Development Authority and a clinical psychologist. "The family … just keep it quiet, not realising that both children need intervention."
Sexual contact between juveniles ranges from innocent curiosity, such as young children "playing doctor", to violent attacks.
A 2009 survey in the UK found that almost 60 per cent of physical sexual abuse reported by children was perpetrated by other children. "The ones I've come across have been mostly a younger child and a teenager," said Dr Ruba Tabari, an educational psychologist in the UAE. "It could be a cousin. It could be a friend's sibling. It could be a brother - it happens."
Although the topic is difficult, parents must talk to their children about "good touch" and "bad touch" so they can recognise inappropriate contact, psychologists say. "A lot of children don't know it's wrong," Dr Tabari said. "If it's happening from a person they care for, the fear isn't there necessarily."
When a 10-year-old boy was accused of abusing his three-year-old cousin last year, social workers intervened and prescribed therapy. Without such professional help, incidents can fester, causing problems for children immediately or later in life, Dr Maseeh said. "It's not something to be taken lightly."
One man who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah recalled that sexualised bullying happened frequently at the government schools he attended. "It's sad, and it's much more common than anyone would admit or anyone can see," said the 26-year-old expatriate.
He began noticing unwanted intimate touching and even rape between pupils from the age of 10.
In January, a 13-year-old boy told court he had been abused twice by pupils at his Dubai school.
The first time, in December 2011, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old accosted him at the school bus stop, dragged him away and took turns raping him.
"I was screaming and crying and begging them to stop, but instead they beat me," the boy said. The next month he was cornered by four pupils, aged 13 to 15, on an empty school bus and forced to perform a sex act on each of them while they filmed it. The video was circulated around his school.
The causes of such problems are complicated, and differ from case to case. "Sexuality is biological in nature and it could be present in children at a very young age," Dr Maseeh said. "But it's a general feeling that it is not very well understood by kids."
Children might learn through observing sexual behaviour between their parents or on television, he said.
"Sometimes children who are abused repeat the act to other kids," Dr Maseeh said.
This year, a teacher in Sharjah noticed a four-year-old boy touching his classmates in a way that crossed the boundaries of childhood play.
"What he did was not curiosity," said the teacher. "This was a very, very vulgar act."
When the teacher tried to talk to the boy's parents, their denial was fierce. She alerted Sharjah Social Service, who discovered the boy had been sexually abused by an adult and was mimicking that behaviour.
"They did confirm that there was something going on quite disturbing, and it's sad that the parents did not acknowledge it," the teacher said.