With child sexual abuse rampant all over Egypt, Sara Ahmed chats with the founder of SAFE, an NGO that teaches abuse prevention and seeks to treat its victims, one child at a time.
A few days ago, I passed by the infamous CAPMAS building on my way home. Against the dark background of the night, the neon red number accumulated every 12 seconds, bringing Egypt’s recorded population to more than 90,800,000. I stared at that number in disbelief and wondered about the new generation of Egyptian babies being popped into this land; I wondered if they would grow healthy, well-loved, educated, and most of all safe. Not only safe from the streets, but from their own families and the countless challenges they meet on a daily basis despite their tender ages.
It is an undeniable fact that our not-so-blessed country suffers from many problems; sexual harassment, corruption, and domestic abuse are rampant, but, of all topics, child sexual abuse takes the cake in sensitivity. Just last year, I came across one girl who had been sexually abused by her uncle, another had been raped at age 11, and the last was concerned because her nephew was showing signs of indecent behaviour towards other children. This was disheartening to listen to because it's clear that children are usually the victims of their immediate surrounding, whether families or even schools, as made evident through the most recent story of the of child sexual abuse at Futures British School.
As much as this is a troubling reality, the fact is that, in a country where sexual education is practically nonexistent, families and schools have a hard time reporting these incidents or even reaching out to their children to provide them with support after such situations of abuse.
This is where SAFE, the only Egyptian NGO aiming to combat child sexual abuse, comes in. SAFE was founded by Sara Aziz in September in 2012 and serves to empower society by giving children, parents, and teachers the knowledge and skills to prevent sexual abuse, as well as supporting those who have been victims.
Aziz, who is currently the president, was volunteering in Egypt's slums when it struck her that the reality of abuse was dire; the amount of horrendous stories she heard was the push she needed to dedicate her full time and efforts to the cause for which she also gave up her corporate career.
According to international statistics, one out three girls and one out of six boys will have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18, and most of these go unreported, explains Aziz. "Parents don’t report due to the scandal and because they don’t want to expose their children. The last reason as to why they don’t report incidents is because they’re not sure authorities will do anything about it,’’ she says. As such, the NGO seeks to carry out its mission on many levels; on the one hand, it seeks to raise awareness through its prevention programs and, on the other, it takes in victims of abuse through a healing process.
SAFE’s office, where a certified team of 15 give out prevention sessions regularly, receives weekly cases of child abuse, many of whom are younger than six years old. Parents, teachers, and caregivers either attend sessions with kids or sessions parallel to kids. There is even a basic training course for volunteers who wish to assist the organisation with its activities. When asked if any children discover that they have been abused through their participation in the prevention programs, Aziz answers affirmatively.
‘‘It’s shocking to the parents; sometimes they become aware after the program. One time we had a boy raise his hand and say that this was happening to him, that a person takes him to the bathroom and abuses him. This was a shock to all parents at the session and it’s very hard,’’ she explains.
According to Al-Monitor, about 40 percent of girls aged 13-35 were victims of assault, which peaked to 62 percent in slum areas in 2014. Girls of younger age (13-17) were more prone to being victims of sexual assault, 49 percent as opposed to 33 percent for older women aged 25-29. These statistics exist in spite of the fact that, according to Article 80 of the Egyptian Constitution, "The state shall care for children and protect them from all forms of violence, abuse, mistreatment, and commercial and sexual exploitation." Moreover, according to article 267 of the Egyptian penal code, anyone convicted of raping a girl, whether they are relatives or not, should be getting the death penalty. However, the law tends to have differing degrees of penalties for both sexes and it all depends on the lengths parents go to when demanding justice for their children, which can be tricky considering that many of them don’t want to even let their children undergo medical examination.
‘‘The children see it as another form of sexual abuse. For boys it’s painful and for both girls and boys, it’s traumatising,’’ Aziz explains with a lot of compassion before reiterating the importance of reporting incidents. She also highly recommends Ain Shams Hospital because they have a forensics department where they specialise in child abuse and sexual harassment.
In the prevention programs the words ‘sexual abuse’ are never mentioned except for children grades six and above. Then they are taught that their personal boundaries need to be respected and that they need to respect other people’s boundaries. For the younger children, the program tries to engage with songs, face painting, and connecting the dots to form characters – this idea of dots makes them understand boundaries in the literal sense.
On a monthly basis, Aziz heads to Upper Egypt and volunteers by spreading her prevention programs in Arabic. She has delivered these sessions to over 2000-3000 children and has noticed that there is more acceptance in the villages. Upper Egyptians, who have noticed that this is common problem, are keener on changing this reality than Cairenes who tend to be in denial that this is happening to their children. She believes that recently there have been more and more people attending the sessions and expressing concern; this interest has been slowly increasing in the past three years.
Recurrent in our conversation was the perturbing fact that predators tend to be those closest to the children because they have direct access to them; predators see them more often and it almost works out as a long-term relationship of abuse. It could be a trainer or an uncle or a grandfather. They even had cases of incest in which a boy was abusing his two younger sister. Aziz considers that the children who carry out these acts are also victims who need help and to learn; one of her cases concerned a child watching the pornography his father watches and imitating this behaviour.
In a way, SAFE really attempts to build a bridge with all forms of potential victims and children who have been abused, but it's also one of their goals to reinforce trust in parents for their children to be comfortable enough to tell them of the challenges because, even if it seems rare, child sexual abuse claims the innocence of many in Egypt.
Find SAFE on Facebook here.
All images were provided by SAFE.