Abused children suffer twice with Jordan's culture of shame

Abused children suffer twice with Jordan's culture of shame
Feature: Despite strict punishments for abusers, fear and shame stop many child victims in Jordan from reporting their attackers.
4 min read
25 April, 2015
Most child abuse cases are not reported to the police, say analysts [AFP]
Maysaa's five-year-old old son has already experienced an event so disturbing that he will likely carry it for the rest of his life.

A month ago, Mohammad was sexually abused by the doorman of their West Amman home. The situation could have been much worse if a neighbour hadn't noticed the doorman leading the child to his room.

"I don't know how I can express my anger, fear, disturbance and sadness," she said. "I never thought that the doorman who has lived in the building with us for seven years could commit such a crime."

Shame and fear 

She did not report the man to the police or its attached family protection unit. Maysaa handled the case herself in secret, fearing a "scandal".

Mustafa, a 20-year-old medical student, still remembers when he was abused by a young neighbour as a child. He could not tell his parents, fearing the man.

Mustafa now lives in a state of fear and anxiety and doctors say that he has not been able to form intimate relationships due to the effects of the abuse.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed has documented numerous cases of sexual abuse against children in Jordan, the memories carried with them for the rest of their lives.

Mona Mustafa, a lawyer and human rights activist, said that a culture of fear and shame makes it difficult to acknowledge all the cases of child abuse in Jordan.

"They fear a scandal and that their children would be shamed for a long time," she said.

The official statistics by the public security directorate and the national centre for forensic medicine suggest that there are 600 cases of child sexual abuse each year in Jordan.

However, the public security directorate's family protection unit said in its annual report that number was inaccurate, due to many attacks not being reported.

"[Families usually] accept tribal reconciliations or financial compensation in return for silence and dropping the case, because they fear being shamed," said Mustafa.

"Naturally, the biggest losers are the children who carry the effects of the abuse, through no fault of their own, until the last day of their lives."

Al-Araby al-Jadeed asked 500 people of various backgrounds in the capital, Amman, about the issues of sexual abuse of children in Jordan.

Around 85 percent of participants said they know of a relative who had been abused as a child, with only 20 percent of victims informing their parents. Just 14 percent reported the abuse to the authorities.

Victims cited "being shamed" as the number one reason for not reporting their attackers. Respondents also agreed that "fear of their attackers" had led to them thinking their parents would not believe them.
     I hear about dozens of cases but, despite my best efforts to convince the families to report the crimes, they refuse.
- Mona Mustafa, activist

'Tighten legislation'

Jordanian law is strict on sexual crimes, especially those against children. The punishment for raping a girl under the age of 15 is the death penalty.

Sexual abuse of female children between the ages of 15 and 18 is punished by ten years imprisonment with hard labour.

The penal code also punishes those who sexually molest children under the age of 15 to seven years in prison with hard labour, regardless of their victims' gender. There is a four-year prison sentence if the victim was between 15 and 18 years of age.

Asma Khudr is an activist working on issues of domestic violence.

"The Jordanian penal code needs developing and there is a need to tackle loopholes in the law that allow perpetrators to escape punishment by paying fines," she said.

Khudr believes that the sexual abuse of children usually takes place due to a mental imbalance in the perpetrator, however, the legal term is "criminal deviancy".

The activist pointed out that in many cases that go to trial, the perpetrator is released due to insufficient evidence.

Dr Mustafa Mahmoud, a psychiatrist, stressed that child sexual abuse leaves a mark on the victim's memory that "cannot be easily removed".

"Children who experience sexual abuse often suffer from what is described as early sexual awareness, which can lead to hyper-sexual activity," he said.

"Children usually mimic sexual activities without being driven by real sexual urges, and they might even become abusers themselves."

He said that victims often bite their fingernails, wet the bed, underperform academically, wake up in fear and experience nightmares, even years after the attacks.

Dr Mahmoud said that, if the children do not receive treatment at an early stage it would be difficult for them to live a normal life.

"Most victims' families do not pay attention to the child's emotional state, instead they rebuke the child - which makes matters worse, as they fear how society will perceive them."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.