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Last updated: April 30, 2013
Lama Younis: Time to confront child abuse in the Kingdom

“I question myself daily; will child abuse in Saudi Arabia ever change?”

There are countless and inconsistent definitions of child abuse. The best way to define it is “a wilful act that harms a child including sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect, as well the failure to provide a child’s basic needs”.   

There are times when the child will experience different types of abuse overlapping, and there are times when one type of abuse may lead to another. It is also important to note that it is hard to categorise various forms of abuse. This leads to dilemmas in dealing with both the victim and perpetrator of the abuse.

Few statistics relating to child abuse are available in Saudi Arabia and there is a lack of research in this field. This can cause dilemmas on which schemes can help provide safety to these children and what steps society should take to help prevent child abuse.

Despite some recent initiatives to raise awareness about child abuse in the Kingdom, the conservatism of Saudi society makes it difficult to drive change. Still very much a taboo, many people will not talk about abuse for religious and traditional reasons.

Another related issue with parents is that some don’t differentiate between abuse and discipline or abuse and punishment or even abuse and child rearing practices. From my experience and years of fieldwork, I have learnt that to some families hitting their children is a way to discipline or punish them. Parents and children should both be educated about this issue in their own level of understanding. With such movement, positive changes can develop.

A number of general issues regarding the protection of children in Saudi Arabia revolve around the legal framework that is currently in place to protect children and the cultural factors which make it very hard for certain schemes to be introduced.

Changing the system to make it easier to deal with child abuse is something that would take time but must be acknowledged as a primary aim in the Kingdom. No matter what educational or protective measures are put in place, if there are no legal sanctions for child abuse, then it is unlikely that any other efforts will be as effective as they could otherwise be.

Bringing families together to talk about such sensitive issues is something that would be extremely difficult in Saudi Arabia. As a result it might be suggested that the government should try to promote the benefits of such an approach, however, the barriers to the government introducing such a scheme of education are equally large. There is, as a result, a chicken and egg problem relating to how we can get society to realize the importance of protecting children if there is no impetus for change in government.

There needs to be an effort to gently change opinions and bring the issue of child abuse into the consciousness of the Saudi people. This might be achieved by setting up a multi-agency task force and having an overseeing body located close to the heart of the government. Through this approach, not only would there be an agency solely focused on dealing with child abuse, but also, it would have a familiarity with many of the structures in government that would allow any changes to be fully vetted and appraised before being implemented. This would facilitate a less controversial introduction of child abuse policies as many groups’ opinions could be taken into account regarding the pace of change.

Furthermore, the police need to be empowered to protect children and the legal system strengthened to give a greater disincentive to potential abusers. The legal system needs to be clear and it needs to be obvious to society that any abuse will be forcibly punished.

The fact that child abuse is often seen as a shame is a classic example of how when something becomes a taboo it gets swept under the carpet and is not dealt with. The attitude needs to be changed so that people can talk about child abuse in a manner which will reduce the likelihood of it occurring.

There are prevention programs that the country might not be able to implement because of these cultural issues, however, Saudi should take advantage of its international links to learn from and interact with agencies that are in charge of protection of children in other countries. This approach would allow the most effective methods to be adopted which would sit comfortably in society.

I question myself daily; will child abuse in Saudi Arabia ever change?

EDITOR'S PICK My favourite neighbourhood in…Jeddah

The painting is by Saudi artist, and sister of the author, Ghada K AlSaud.

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