x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Worrying reports of sexual assaults

Reports of a variety of sexual assault crimes are a signal that women need more respect in society.

In early 2010, a poll by YouGov found that an overwhelming 97 per cent of residents in the UAE said they felt safe in the country. The data was a ringing endorsement for the type of open, diverse and tolerant society the country had built over the past four decades.

Two years later, most would agree that the UAE is very safe in most circumstances. Yet there are crimes of a particular sort - sexual harassment and assault - that seems to be occurring with alarming frequency. The evidence is anecdotal, but the steady stream of reports about assaults should be cause for collective concern. We fear that there are more unreported incidents.

It seems every day brings a new series of disturbing headlines. Yesterday's edition of The National, for instance, detailed two separate sexual assaults: in one case, men attacked a masseuse at her business after hours; in another, a man posed as a police officer and groped women. A few days before, there was the case of a bus driver in Dubai jailed for attacking a female passenger. The list of recent reported cases is unfortunately much longer than we can recount here.

These reports are, of course, anecdotal. The truth is we don't know precisely how prevalent sexual-assault crimes are. Detailed crime statistics are rarely reelased and not always comprehensive.

A related concern is establishing a safe public space for women, especially given the gender imbalance in the country. Not all sexual assaults are directed against women, of course, and these crimes are a problem for all of us. But the respect of women's rights has implications for the type of society that we choose to be.

In such a diverse society, there must be basic rules of respect. Boys in school must learn from any early age that sexual violence is a serious offence; immigrants from every country must understand that transgressions will not be tolerated. And the judicial system must impose judgments that send a firm message. Finally, women must fully understand their rights, be unafraid to report assaults and have full recourse to a fair judicial process.

One story of sexual violence is too many - a string of reports about similar crimes should focus our attention.