Sabria S. Jawhar
THE most recent spate of child abuse cases that attracted considerable attention in social media outlets points to a growing frustration among Saudis about the rising number of reported incidents of violence against children in our society.
The case of a man accused of raping and murdering his five-year-old daughter and the horrific account of the systemic and gruesome violence against a nine-year-old boy should be evidence alone that we are not doing enough to protect our children.
A primary component of our society is that the family’s privacy must be protected. But privacy in the extreme does not help build a strong society and privacy can’t stand in the way of monitoring child abuse by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
We live in an era of heightened anxiety and stress. More than 60 percent of Saudis do not have their own home. Many Saudis are coping with unemployment. The cost of living continues to rise and the traffic in urban areas is almost unbearable. The stress on young parents is especially difficult.
According to Aliah Al-Fareed of the National Human Rights Commission, a significant percentage of Saudi wives are subject to violence by their husbands. A high percentage of those women are between the ages of 18 and 29. However, most of those women never went to the police.
Sanaa Al-Hwaily, a Saudi psychologist with the Ro’ea Center for Social Studies, reported that 45 percent of all Saudi children have been subjected to violence. In 2011, the center registered 500 cases of violence against children, a huge leap from 292 registered cases in 2010. She expects the numbers to increase in 2013.
The fallout from all of this is that often young children become scapegoats for their parents’ problems. It’s almost expected that reported child abuse cases increase in these difficult times. By the same token, it’s necessary that the Saudi government steps in and takes strict measures against child abusers by making it easier to report people who commit violence.
Rather than valuing privacy to the extent that it puts a child in danger, Saudi Arabia needs to consider adopting strategies from other countries that will enhance safety. In addition to an awareness campaign, the Ministry of Education should develop laws that require teachers to report suspected abuses of children to police. Foster family programs, which are nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, but commonplace in many other countries, would take abused children out of shelters and into a loving home environment. Shelters are not the only solution to protecting children. Often these shelters serve more or less as warehouses since the emotional wellbeing of the children is not a priority.
Police departments need to resist taking a passive stance in the name of privacy by actively investigating child abuse cases. In fact, law agencies must encourage reporting abuse.
We have a family in our apartment building in which the parents are constantly fighting. Often loud shouting matches go on through the night and early morning. The young children are subject to verbal abuse. Whether they are physical abused is unknown, but it usually doesn’t take long for physical violence to follow verbal violence.
Yet the police won’t investigate such cases because they need a complaint from a family member. Never mind that most victims of domestic violence will not report their abuse to authorities because they fear reprisals.
I remember when I was a child a family in my neighborhood was physically abused by the father. The screams of the mother and the children could be heard throughout the neighborhood. When the screams started, my parents would take all the children inside the house to make sure that we would not hear those screams.
The abuse became so bad that my father finally went to their house with the imam of our mosque and two other men and explained to the man who abused his wife and children that his behavior was un-Islamic in the worse way. I don’t know whether the abuse stopped after that day, but the screams did. We never heard the abuse again.
But Saudi families live isolated lives now and there are few neighbors willing to confront a child abuser about his crimes.
To address this problem, female police officers would help solve the issue of abuse victims reluctant to file complaints. Wives and mothers would feel more secure walking into a police station to file a complaint to a woman police officer.
Saudi Arabia has Naif Arab University for Security Sciences that requires police officers to attend for certification. Women attend this university to become prison guards in female prisons. There is no reason why women police officers can’t be trained with an emphasis on handling domestic abuse cases. Police departments can comply with Shariah by providing separate entrances for female officers and for women who require police services.
We can no longer hide behind our right to privacy when a child’s life is in danger. If the life of one of our neighbors is threatened and we do nothing, what does that say about us?