Spare the rod and spoil the child?
Last month at a high-profile conference in Cairo, violence against children was probed, prodded and condemned. Welcoming newly introduced services such as a child abuse hotline were announced in the course of the proceedings. Serene Assir delineates one of the region's more disturbing phenomena
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There are no current figures on the number of incidents of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on street children
A PERENNIAL PROBLEM: "Whatever conception you might have, violence exists in every home." Thus 25-year-old Cairo University law student Omar, who withheld his real name: "No doubt there are degrees, in terms of both frequency and intensity, but it's there. Being the eldest child [in his family home near the Citadel], I guess I had the worst treatment from my father. I would grow up to understand that he beat my siblings and me because he genuinely believed that that was the way to bring up children. But as a child I felt he hated me." One incident involved Omar failing to eat dinner (his mother had served a vegetable dish he did not like) and being taunted by his father: "What with him shouting, the chances of my eating anything at all became even smaller. He started to beat me. He became so impatient with my crying that he threw me onto the floor and stepped on my chest to shut me up. I will never forget that day. I swear to you, I felt as if I had died for a minute." Omar was unable to divulge these experiences until he was an adult. One particularly painful memory is that of his mother trying to stop the beatings, "which could last for hours, literally until he was exhausted", and face beating herself as a result: "Like that of most people, my childhood was not free of violence. And neither home nor school provided protection." The abuse resulted in him reacting to problems in a physically aggressive way as an adult: "I know it's not the way to resolve arguments, but I suppose violence becomes internalised. I sometimes have to check my physical response to an argument, but I'm always very nervous when I feel things are out of my control. My father now realises that beating children doesn't work. They don't learn that way. It took him years, but I think he regrets it. As for myself, I know I will never be violent with my own children. Violence will only reap violence. I suppose I learned that the hard way."
VARIATIONS ON A THEME: As in most of the world, in Egypt violence against children is not restricted to experiences like Omar's. As widespread in the countryside as it is the city, it cuts across class lines and remains the norm in government schools, especially boys' schools. This, despite Egypt being party to numerous children's rights conventions. "Basically, if you don't know the answer," Omar explained, "you get hit." Children are frequently abused on the streets, something some parents condone. "My son was once playing football with some friends on our street," Doqqi café owner Raafat Sayid, 45, testified, "and they hit a car with the ball. The car owner grabbed my son and slapped him. He came running up to me. And I ordered him to go back and apologise, so he would learn his lesson." The variety of the forms violence against children assumes is worth emphasising. They can be categorised, roughly, into physical, sexual and psychological, the latter ranging from neglect to a systematic attempt to undermine a child's self-esteem; according to one child psychiatrist, the Syrian Arab Association of Psychiatrics' President Mohamed Adib Essali, "any kind of child abuse can result in life-long psychiatric damage". According to Essali, 35 per cent of the cases in Egypt involve a family member as the aggressor: "Most assaults are committed by people trusted by the child." Indeed the Egyptian Terres des Hommes Foundation reports that 90 per cent of aggressors know their victims. One of Egypt's more pressing problems, that of street children, is also rooted in domestic violence. Noor, 18, said she ended up on the street because of abuse by her father and his wife. "In winter they would force me to wash in freezing cold water, and if I did something to upset them they would use electricity on me. Things had never been so great at home, but after my mother left and my father took a new wife it became impossible. I was beaten in ways I couldn't have imagined. Once my father struck my leg repeatedly, then poured hot water on it." Nor is life away from home any safer: "Sometimes, gangs of boys from Doqqi or Imbaba come to where I usually sleep in Agouza in search of someone to kidnap. But even when we get away or they are scared away from us by the police, they still give us a good beating." Street children are frequently subject to violence, notably by the police, who use force to arrest them and deprive them of food while in detention; no records exist as to the number of incidents of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on street children by members of the police. "I guess, in the end," a cigarette-wielding Warda, 12, declared in downtown Cairo, "the police are what we are most afraid of."
A CULTURE OF DISINHERITANCE: Equally important is understanding violence within a specific cultural context: in Egypt corporal punishment is on the whole seen as an acceptable mode of upbringing. "Sometimes, when one of my sons misbehaves, I feel the only way to teach him a lesson is to hit him," Sayid testified. "It only happens when they've done something really bad, like refusing to go to school or to pray -- and even then I do it tenderly." Yet UNESCO Paris peace and human rights official Paolo Fontani told Al-Ahram Weekly there is no reason violence against children should be any more acceptable here than elsewhere in the world: "Sweden is a case in point. As recently as the 1980s, the vast majority of the population felt that beating a child was an acceptable method of upbringing. Now, however, following intense media and awareness campaigns and the introduction and implementation of new legislation, surveys suggest that less that 10 per cent of the population believe it is acceptable, under any circumstances." Research does suggest that, rather than a cultural phenomenon per se, violence against children is linked with a given child's place within a family or a social context, in terms of both material and societal circumstances; culture may justify it, but it does not explain it. In other words, a child in the care of an inadequately funded institution for minors with disabilities is probably far more prone to physical and sexual violence than one born into a tightly-knit, financially secure household. Fontani points to low pay and poor training of teachers as "a big part of the reason" they beat school children. Mohamed, who works in a downtown baladi café, is a good example: "As a child I wasn't beaten because I'd done anything wrong." An orphan, he was raised by his uncle, he recounts. "His wife didn't like me at all -- she just felt I was in the way. So whenever they wanted to go out or have fun, they would beat me to keep me quiet. Life wasn't easy, because I felt there was no one in the world who cared for me." Doctor Iman El-Shorbagi of the Hope Village Society Centre in Imbaba concurred: "Children come to me with all kinds of injury. Sometimes they will have been tied to their beds for days, at other times they will have been burned with red-hot spoons; sometimes they are infected with a sexually transmitted disease. But in every case of severe abuse, whether in the home or on the street, by other children or by adults, the victims are psychologically broken." This is confirmed by the example of Noor. Asked whether she felt safer at home or on the streets, she paused for a long time before replying, "they are one and the same. I didn't feel safe at home, and now that I'm on the street it's dangerous all the time." Yet, typically of children in her position, Noor did not know the Arabic word for violence.
QUESTIONS OF OPENNESS... In her inaugural address at the conference of the Middle East and North Africa Regional Consultation on Violence against Children (27 to 29 June), Egyptian National Council of Motherhood and Childhood (NCCM) secretary and United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Vice-Chair Mushira Khattab described the open use of the word "violence" in such a gathering as "a real breakthrough". Until very recently all across the Middle East, she explained, both governments and societies refused to acknowledge the existence of the problem, let alone map its dimensions: "The most challenging forms of violence against children are those the prevailing culture condones. Corporal punishment and domestic violence are examples of this." Indeed this was the first conference to deal exclusively with this issue, as urgent as it is complex. As UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah, a key speaker, put it, "a wall of silence has been broken. The region has a very strong tradition of child care and at last people are willing to discuss these issues." With the object of coming up with a plan to "press local governments and civil organisations into action", delegates included 27 children from across the region and 250 NGO representatives as well as health and education professionals and UN staff from across the world. Discussions focussed on four settings: homes, schools, institutions and the workplace (for many children the latter is synonymous with the street). Speakers provided not only diagnoses but prognoses of the problem, each from his or her vantage point. Significantly, not one put the blame on culture. For her part Salah indicated that, on the contrary, the societies in question all emphasise child care. Rather, speakers drew a holistic picture of individual families in financial or social constraints and sought to place the phenomenon strictly within that context.
...AND PROACTIVE ANSWERS: In the wake of the conference, independently-organised workshops were held for health and social professionals at a central Cairo hotel -- a first step on the way to implementing the recommendations of this UNICEF and NCCM-organised event. "The most important thing," Jordanian forensic pathologist Hani Jahshan, a conference speaker, told the Weekly, "is that professionals from all fields should work together; the issue is so complex it can only be tackled in a multi-disciplinary way." Not least because it requires various simultaneous interventions: this is especially true of Egypt, where civil society, active as it may be, remains relatively powerless: "In Jordan, many changes took place in recent years. Now, police and health professionals, lawmakers and the media are all part of the fight against violence." Effective protection of children in Egypt must, in other words, involve all sectors of society; both individuals and institutions must make a concerted effort to integrate into an increasingly global mindset that condemns the exposure of minors to danger. While not keen on making direct recommendations to governments, Fontani insisted that, "to eliminate violence, you need to start an entire process, providing for legislation that completely eliminates violence". In cases like Egypt, where such a tight legal framework exists, is to ensure that the law is strictly implemented: "Aggressors like abusive teachers should be reported and punished." Yet in a society where the professionals charged with the task of implementing the law, i.e. the police, themselves inflict violence on children, there is a long way to go before this becomes a possibility: "You see, that doesn't happen in Jordan any more." In the context of holistic efforts to counter violence against children, Fontani stressed the role of the media in raising awareness: "There also must be a true government commitment to conducting awareness campaigns among parents, teachers and professionals. You see, much of the problem results from the fact that many people simply do not realise that there are alternative ways to instill discipline in children."
A CULTURE IN TRANSFORMATION? Alternatives and the frameworks in which to spread them were discussed in the conference, with speakers proposing different formulae for allowing children to participate in their own upbringing. Open discussion of the child's behaviour was commended by educationalist as more effective. Addressing violence at school, Fontani told delegates that "corporal punishment, rather than creating a bond between adult and child, makes the child step away, with violence often escalating to the point when the child no longer makes a distinction between what is and what is not a violent act, making it more likely that he or she will grow up to be violent". The child delegates were deeply engaged in discussions, but several of them, according to UNICEF Cairo, expressed concern that little or no action would be taken outside the conference framework. Mohamed, 13, the victim of school violence, said he hoped the problem would soon be solved: "Children don't learn by force. Teachers need to explain concepts patiently, and they need to have a sense of understanding with their students." Though much of what was proposed within the confines of the five-star hotel setting of the conference will not be easily implemented, Asma, 14, felt that "this is the first time that delegates in a conference on children focus so closely and whole- heartedly on such an issue. So I truly hope that this time round, it will bring about real change." Perhaps the conferences most immediate contribution was the announcement of the opening of a hotline service for children suffering from violence. The initiative, launched by the NCCM on the same day as the conference opened, has proved instantly successful. Within 12 days, indeed, 11,000 children from all across the country had dialled the hotline number (16000) to file complaints. Though the service does not provide for protection, it breaks a taboo and promotes transparency. Adult citizens must do all they can to encourage children, who are already emancipating themselves. "When I have children," Asma went on to say, "I will use completely different methods. We mustn't forget that, in time, new approaches will become available. Until today, no such conference had sought the participation of children, so it's obvious that there is some degree of progress already. God willing, things will be better for the next generation."