Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Child Abuse in MENA on the Rise: A Persisting Crisis

A dramatic rise in child abuse has become visible across MENA, most notably in Lebanon and Iraq where regulations are failing to protect children.

Child Abuse in MENA
Young Iraqi pupil on his way to school. Zaid AL-OBEIDI / AFP

Dana Hourany

A dramatic rise in violence against children has become visible across much of MENA, most notably in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq where inadequate regulations are failing to protect children from harm, coupled with economic distress weighing heavily on families.

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch across 19 countries in MENA has revealed that corporal punishment is an incredibly common phenomenon. A staggering 90 percent of children receive physical punishment at least once a month in nations such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

In Qatar, this statistic had marginally decreased to 50 percent. However, when it comes to laws prohibiting violent disciplinarian tactics, Human Rights Watch found that there was very little in place with some even explicitly permitting the phenomenon.

According to HRW, a plethora of research has uncovered a distressing pattern: physical violence used as discipline has been linked to higher rates of suicide ideation, anxiety, domestic abuse, delinquency and school drop-outs. Such violence inflicted by parents or instructors can spiral out of control quickly, sadly culminating in the deaths of thousands of young people each year.

The region has witnessed a surge of all forms of abuse ranging from physical, psychological, verbal, sexual and even child marriage and labor due to the economic and social consequences that followed the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to experts, this outbreak is likely to worsen. According to research, deeply ingrained conventional attitudes that maintain gender inequality and an unequal power structure between men and women, as well as between parents and children, are the primary cause. Unless extensive legal changes are undertaken to establish strong safeguards and safety nets for vulnerable children, this phenomenon is likely to persist.

What has been happening?

6-year-old Lynn Taleb tragically passed unexpectedly in early July, purportedly at her grandfather’s house in Al-Minieh, north Lebanon, where she had traveled with her mother to celebrate Eid Al-Adha the previous week. According to media reports, she was the victim of a horrific rape that left her with an internal hemorrhage and ultimately led to her death eight days later. Her untimely departure has caused immense shock and distress among the Lebanese public who have responded with fury and rage.

The girl’s mother claims that when she went to the doctor, she was informed that she only had a high temperature and only needed prescription medication to help lower it. The mother decided to take her daughter home rather than let her stay at the hospital. The doctor failed to inspect the girl’s full body as a result. She passed away on the evening of 1 July.

Further investigation coupled with DNA testing revealed that the girl’s maternal uncle and maternal grandfather were allegedly the perpetrators of repeated sexual assaults, leading to the girl’s death.

Though no conclusion has been reached yet, it appears that both the mother and grandmother may have concealed pertinent information in order to protect those responsible.

Lynn is only one of several other cases.

A few days later, an infant was found abandoned in the clutches of an unknowing stray dog in Tripoli, only hours after that, two newborns were left tucked away in a cardboard box underneath the Nahr Ibrahim bridge.

That same month, outrage echoed across Lebanon after a video circulated of an employee at a daycare center physically assaulting toddlers. This prompted swift action from the Lebanese judiciary, who announced the closure of the daycare with Judge Rania Yahfoufi handing down a detention memorandum concerning the daycare center’s owner and its employee. The accusations against the worker are attempted murder and aggravated intentional harm while complicity in intentional harm is blamed on the center’s owner.

Toward the end of July, a parent filed a legal complaint against (R.Z.), an employee of the Druze Orphanage, claiming that he was intimidating and harassing children there. After only a few weeks however, the accusation was dropped. Transcripts from the investigation were leaked online which showed that R.Z. had allegedly asked the children for sexual favors and when they refused he became menacing and started to record them. It appears that the administration at the orphanage were aware of what transpired.

From Beirut to Baghdad, the tragic cases continue. The death of Mousa Walaa in late July has stirred controversy. According to reports, the 7-year-old Iraqi child was brutally tortured to death by his stepmother in the al-Khatib area of al-Shula city in Baghdad. Before he succumbed, cruel methods like electric shock, knife cuts, and suffocation were used on him. The deceased’s picture, which went viral online, obviously displayed symptoms of abuse. His father received a life term in jail, while the stepmother received the death penalty.

Although these were the most talked-about incidents of violence against children this summer and some that have sparked the most outrage among MENA audiences, many cases go unreported and unnoticed in the region. Earlier this year, in Morocco, two men were found guilty of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl.

Research done by Save The Children, revealed through its study that women leaving their native countries in North Africa face multiple forms of gender and sexual violence. These include physical assaults, deprivation of liberty, tracking and exploitation; as well as forced marriage and even being required to undergo sexual abuse for access to basic needs such as housing protection or money. This is attributed mainly to various barriers such as lacking legal documentation; ultimately leading many girls down the path to child marriage.

Alarming data

Although Lebanon is not the only country suffering from a high rate of reported cases of violence against children, it has garnered the majority of media attention in recent months. Among the driving reasons for this increasing phenomenon of abuse are a fractured parliament, endemic corruption with little state intervention, and an economy in disrepair. The safety of women and children remains far from being at the pinnacle of national concerns.

Within the first five months of the year 2023, Himaya, a non-governmental organization dedicated to child protection, documented an astounding 1,415 cases of child violence. The current economic distress experienced by Lebanon has caused a resurgence of incidents related to domestic abuse.

Moreover, with over half of the Lebanese population and almost all refugees living below the poverty line, phenomena such as child labor and child marriage are continuously on the rise.

In a 2022 report, UNICEF found that child marriage is more common in some countries of the region than others. For instance, Sudan and Yemen have a rate of one in three, whereas Tunisia has a significantly lower rate at one in fifty. Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon, who are among the most vulnerable in the country, are often barred from education, making it impossible for them to provide for their families if their husbands die or abandon them – leaving them in a perpetual state of codependency.

A UNICEF report in 2023 showed an alarming increase in families who are resorting to child labor for survival in Lebanon. The report has also pointed out the toll on children’s mental health, with statistics showing that almost half of all caregivers confessed their children usually feel “very sad or depressed.”

This is a widespread phenomenon across the Middle East. An estimated 13.4 million children in the region are employed in some form of work, representing 15% of all minors living there. This figure may even be underestimated due to its prevalence in the informal sector which is difficult to measure accurately. Urban informal sector jobs, seasonal agriculture work, street labor and domestic employment are particularly concerning areas.

Exploring the reasons

According to UNICEF’s Farah Hammoud, the continuous financial crisis that has crippled Lebanon since 2019 has had a tremendous effect on both the emotional and physical wellbeing of its people. But most vulnerable are the children who bear the brunt of injustices such as outdated traditional notions which condone violence as a means of discipline.

“It is not uncommon for Lebanon to be entrenched with archaic and patriarchal values. Child abuse and the sexual assault of minors are often seen as acceptable behaviours,” Hammoud told Fanack. It is worth noting that these values are persistent throughout the region and not limited to one country.

Hammoud points to power imbalance as the origin of violence. It is often the man of the family who takes advantage of his position and can demonstrate this strength through different means, such as verbal, physical, sexual, psychological or mental abuse.

“Abuse in Lebanon has reached alarming levels, with cases slipping through the cracks – especially for instances of violence suffered by young women who are married off and consequently experience abuse in their new home,” Hammoud said highlighting that much of the mistreatment suffered by underage individuals occurs in secret due to feelings of humiliation and fear, making them reluctant to voice their experiences.

Factors that may prevent a child from reaching out for help when needed include the normalization of violence in a society where a child feels their parents have the “right to discipline” them, or a right to their body. However, UNICEF and its partners such as Himaya NGO, encourage children to seek guidance from an adult they trust who can help them reach out for assistance.

International expert in the field of child protection Zeina Alloush told Fanack that poverty and violence can often be connected. She noted that since people living with few resources often lack access to necessary services, they may be more prone to abusive behavior. On the flip side, those with financial means are able to conceal their crimes more efficiently.

“Violence against children is also interconnected with a lack of safety for women and the lack of adequate response from the judicial system, which must ensure easy access to safe mechanisms without being jeopardized by society or family,” Alloush noted.

She adds that taboos and archaic beliefs created the perfect storm in the Lynn Taleb case, where the family collaborated to protect the family’s reputation due to perpetual taboos against sexual violence.

“We can observe a rise in crimes in Lebanon because the government itself abuses and violates its people repeatedly,” she said.

A bleak future to come

In 2020, 23 children tragically lost their lives in Iraq due to violence from their own parents, two unnamed officials working in the Iraqi Ministry of Health revealed the data to Al-Araby al-Jadeed. Statistics from 2019 also showed that roughly 50 other young people were severely beaten and hospitalized that year.

The Pan American Health Organisation estimates that 4 out 5 Iraqi children are subject to some form of physical or emotional abuse each year – though the full extent is hard to accurately establish given the lack of reliable studies conducted and many cases going unreported.

Whilst corporal punishment is against the law, the Penal Code of Iraq grants fathers permission to use physical means when disciplining their children.

Nojus Saad, vice chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Adolescents and Youth constituency and president of the Youth for Women Foundation, told Fanack that the concept of familial honor and cultural norms contribute to various forms of violence in Iraqi households, particularly against girls who shoulder the responsibility of the family’s “honor” for their entire lives.

“Reporting child abuse is extremely rare due to the strong stigma surrounding it, which discourages people from speaking up. The economic and political context also plays a significant role,” Saad said, adding that the political and religious aspects contribute to this issue, with some justifying abusive behavior based on religious beliefs.

The Iraqi government, which is heavily influenced by the Islamic faith, often argues that implementing laws against abuse could disrupt families, raise divorce rates, and weaken control over women and children, says Saad.

In early 2022, Basim Abdul-Zaman, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, called for the completion of the Child Protection Bill, to no avail.

However, in 2009 a law was passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that prohibited “physical and psychological abuse of students.” Two years prior in 2007, guidelines were released by KRG Ministry of Education which made it illegal to use corporal punishment on children. To make sure these measures were enforced, an information plan for parents and teachers as well as sanctions and monitoring systems were set into place.

Tribal traditions still prevent many girls and young children from reporting abuse for fear of punishment, Saad explains.

Boys, in particular, are trained to take on the position of family leader from an early age, he adds. This entails watching over their mothers and siblings, especially their female siblings, and keeping an eye on their day-to-day activities, such as their use of social media and outings. These young boys assume a dominant position in the family when other males are not around, making sure that the women are in check and do not overstep boundaries imposed by older males.

Saad says he has seen growing efforts to break the cycle of violence against children and raising awareness against this phenomenon, yet he insists that much more still needs to be done. Farah argues that the Lebanese media plays a significant role in raising awareness of this issue, particularly sexual abuse which is one of its most socially unacceptable taboos.

On the flip side, however, it can also have destructive effects by publicizing victims’ details and thus condemning them to a lifetime of bullying and humiliation. Going forward, prospects remain unclear with some signs pointing to an even darker future for those affected by such crimes throughout the MENA region.

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