Hajar Did Not Hesitate to Talk about What Happened to Her Son.
24 April 2013
Hajar did not hesitate to talk about what happened to her son.
AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon: Hajar S. still remembers what happened to her 8-year-old when an older boy abused him sexually in exchange for a small amount of money.
A well-educated woman, Hajar, was obliged to spend many hours away from home to work after she divorced her husband. This meant her son was mostly left to his own devices.
When she learned that her child had been the victim of sexual abuse, she raised the issue with specialists from Naba’a (Developmental Action without Borders) and Warchild Holland in Lebanon, who were compiling a joint study about the underpinnings of child abuse in the camp.
Her story, along with those of other parents like her, contributed to the report that follows up on a study about violence against children conducted by Naba’a in 2006. The report aims to delve deeper into incidents of abuse as experienced by children in the camp, like Hajar’s son.
The mother’s choice to speak openly about sexual abuse was courageous, as sex and homosexuality are considered taboo subjects in the camp, which is inhabited by 90,000 people, including 10,000 Syrian refugees. Many are deeply devout in the camp, where religious figures work tirelessly to promote Islamic education and culture.
In the Naba’a center, Hajar did not hesitate to talk about what happened to her son, unlike many mothers in her position who remain silent about abuse.
“Three years ago my son came from school late at 10 p.m. and he was in a horrible state. He was shaking and when I asked him what had happened ... he told me that he had been playing with his friends. Later I found LL3,000 in coins in his pockets, and later he confessed that an older boy had abused him sexually,” she said.
“I took my son to a doctor immediately, back when similar incidents hadn’t been reported in our neighborhood. But after this, two other incidents took place,” she added.
Hajar believes the problem lies in parents’ fears of talking openly about the abuse, which is further exacerbated by the fact that victims seldom receive psychological treatment.
The mother urged all parents whose children have suffered sexual abuse to “inform the officials in the camp about the incidents, because being discrete does not help the victims, or other children, because this might encourage the abusers to continue.”
Though anecdotal reports of child abuse have circulated in the camp in the past, the joint report investigates each incident in depth. The study aimed to ascertain the validity of the reports to better understand the predominant causes of abuse, and to better address the issue and protect children from becoming victims.
Hajar said that instead of punishing her son, she followed up on the case with a psychologist at the Naba’a center, “and my son’s situation improved.”
“My son was lured by money, however, there are many reasons behind sexual abuse ... like uncensored TV programs, deviating from religion, improper upbringing and sexual disorientation,” she said, adding that it was important to raise awareness.
Other camp residents agree with Hajar’s reasons for the prevalence of abuse, saying such incidents have intensified recently due to general moral degradation linked with the increase of unlicensed and uncensored satellite channels.
“I support giving lectures about sexual education within the Islamic schools to raise awareness among parents and teenagers,” Hajar said.
According to the report, the majority of children interviewed said the perpetrator of the abuse was someone close or well known to them, who often times lived in their environment, either near their homes or school. And most incidents of sexual abuse took place on the street, especially after school when children were heading back home.
Psychologist Rowayda Ismail, who worked on the joint report, said, “No one here talks about this issue directly because of the role customs and traditions play and because no one is courageous and bold enough to address it. With this report we have broken this taboo, and our current project enables children to protect themselves and encourages them to talk to their parents about any problems they face. We have special programs to help them to manage their relationships with parents and peers.”
Ismail said that when she receives a sexual abuse case, she visits the parents first and urges them to talk about the incident, so that she can help to guide them through ways to cope.
“We have to be frank so the treatment yields good results,” she said.
“In 2011, we had 17 cases of sexual abuse that targeted boys between 10 and 15 years of age. In most cases the reasons the abuse was triggered were by a breakup in family ties and exposure of the children to sexually explicit material, in addition to abuse by older pedophiles.”
At the Naba’a center, children who were victims of abuse are not only treated psychologically but are encouraged to engage in many activities geared toward improving their mental health.
“We also ask that the parents give more time and attention to their children and listen to their problems,” Ismail added.
The center is now receiving calls from parents asking for help or treatment for their children after word spread that its programs were dependable and their staff trustworthy.
In light of increased numbers of child sexual abuse victims opening up about their ordeals, a protection committee was formed in the camp, which is composed of a religious figure, a psychiatrist, a political official from the popular committees and a representative from UNRWA.
Abu Ishak, a preacher who is also a protection committee member, said “the number of abuse cases is exaggerated,” and stressed that “the number of cases was no more than five.”
He believes that exaggerating the numbers will “tarnish the image of the camp and make it look as if it is a thriving environment for perverts.”
“There are about 100,000 people living in an area that takes up about 1 kilometer of land. This is a region like any other in the world where there are some cases of abnormal sexual preferences, but in Ain al-Hilweh it is not yet a phenomenon,” he said.
From his perspective, the small number of sexual abuse cases that he has come across spawns from overpopulation, exacerbated by the arrival of Syrian refugees and poor living conditions