x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jordan to confront shame of child abuse

Sexual assaults and domestic violence are minefields for health workers and legal system as social stigma blights resolution.

AMMAN // A mother and her seven-year-old son who had bruises on his face, his back and legs walked into the Family Protection Unit this month. His mother told Nour Ajaleen, an officer at FPU, the boy had been beaten by his stepmother but he tried to hide the truth because he was afraid that she would beat him again. The story is a familiar one at the unit, which was set up in 1997 to protect women and children who have suffered sexual abuse and domestic violence. "We first try to make the child feel at ease and explain to him that we are here to help him," said Mrs Ajaleen, sitting in the investigation room that is furnished with yellowish couches, a few books and stuffed toys. In another case a few months ago, a mother brought her 10- year-old girl to the FPU to file a complaint against a shopkeeper who tried to sexually assault her daughter. He tried to coax her with chips and biscuits and then attempted to undress her. But she screamed and managed to run away. Child abuse is not unfamiliar in Jordan, but it is a situation that the government is trying to battle. Col Mohammad Zubi, the head of the FPU, said his department dealt with 2,944 cases of abuse against women and children in 2007. Of those, 400 children were sexually assaulted. "The vast majority of cases were resolved by social workers at the department, while the others were referred to the administrative governor and the courts," he said. Not all cases of child abuse are reported. Israa Twalbeh, a forensic doctor at the National Institute for Forensic Medicine, said: "We believe the untold cases are much higher." Most of the cases are referred by the police and non-governmental organisations. However, the social stigma often stops families from reporting sexual abuse, particularly if the victim is a female. "We have similar stories where mothers want us to examine their daughters only to check on their virginity. They don't tell us the truth because they do not want us to file a complaint. They give different pretexts such as the girl fell and bled," Dr Twalbeh said. "We know that there is a different story. We try to convince them to report a case of sexual abuse but they beg us not to. They are afraid if it is the father, who is the bread winner, he will be imprisoned. "Another is society, and relatives in general will consider a teenage girl who was raped, although a victim, as a social disgrace. "If the family files a case to court there is a social taboo as if the entire family has been sentenced to death socially ? Females need to be empowered so that they can complain." This month, the criminal prosecutor charged a 22-year-old man with molesting and then murdering his nine-year-old half-sister. The suspect was detained. If convicted he will be sentenced to death, the penalty for raping a female younger than 15. At the National Institute for Forensic Medicine, Dr Twalbeh said she has dealt with children as young as six who were sexually assaulted. But in one instance, she recalled a case of a two-year-old toddler who was molested. The toddler was lost and a taxi driver found her and handed her in to the police. "She was the youngest victim I have ever examined," she said. The police questioned the driver who handed her in and later they discovered that it was his friend who was with him who had molested the girl. To Dr Twalbeh's dismay, the man only received a five-year prison term because it was not considered rape. More boys than girls are raped because they are an easy target as they are given more freedom by their families to play outside. Also, anyone who rapes a boy can only be charged with sexual assault, which carries a maximum seven-year sentence, compared to a life sentence for a similar attack on a girl. King Abdullah II took a public stance against child molestation this month after news reports highlighted cases of child abuse in Jordan. "We have to be strict in applying laws that protect their rights," the king told editors of the country's daily newspapers. "The answer to any violations of children's rights has to be harsh." He described crimes against children as "sabotage" against the community and a "menace" that threatens the future of the country by undermining the well-being of its young generation. He stressed the need to enforce the law and impose maximum penalties on those convicted of child abuse. Jordan has taken strides to combat child abuse in the past decade, ranging from establishing a safe house for abused children in 1997 to setting up a helpline last year and endorsing a family protection law in March, which was hailed as a step in the right direction. But the challenges remain. The law has yet to be activated and several loopholes have emerged. One example is article eight of the law that obliges those who work in the social, medical and educational fields to report domestic violence to the FPU and the family mediation committees at the ministry of social development. "But there are defects because the same article does not enforce any penalties if they don't report the cases," said Hani Jahshan, a forensic pathologist and a member of the editorial board of the United Nations Study on Violence Against Children. "At the health ministry, reporting about child abuse is very weak and hardly exceeds one per cent of the total cases. "At times, those working in the health sector lack the training and skills to discover the cases. Besides, the abuser and the victim hide the truth," he said. smaayeh@thenational.ae