Safe-guarding our children and ensuring their well-being is the job of us all. However, the health and security of some minors cannot always be guaranteed, as statistics on child abuse in the Sultanate have recently revealed. Team Y examines how a greater recognition of one of society’s worst ills is helping to ensure a better future for Oman’s vulnerable children.
If a child’s tears could be put into words, they would script a whole story.
While weeping is a means to mend one’s pain – be it mental or physical – each child has to learn to handle adversity; and it’s considered an inevitable part of life.
As the adage goes, “Crying heals the hurt”. But not all scars can be healed with tears or for that matter, time.
It’s something we learn as we sit down with Rashid*, a 23-year-old Omani student, who has a story of pain. It’s a story that stems from his love-hate relationship with what society pegs as his role models – his parents.
Ripped off from his childhood by narcotic parents who would physically abuse him, Rashid tells of how he would be subjected to mistreatment – often with the belt by his father – which gave him several bruises, several of which haven’t faded to date.
But speaking to him, we learn that it isn’t just his bruises that haven’t gone away; his mental health is just as fragile – much like that of several other child abuse victims that currently reside in the Sultanate.
He struggles to gather his words in our interview but eventually relays to us the extent of what he underwent as a child.
Rashid says: “I try not to remember much from my childhood. My parents were both addicts, and we used to live in a very small home in Azaiba.
“Since we were distant from our family homes, I had only my parents to lean on. But, they never showed me much love or respect.
“They would often hit me and pinch me to the point that I would squirm in pain or my flesh would be exposed. I was so scared that I would go and hide behind the door or under the bed when I was small.
“But, once I began growing up, those options went away. I remember crying. I remember crying a lot.”
Rashid was eventually rescued by his expat neighbours at the age of nine in 2005 and he has been living with his uncle in Barka ever since. The parents were since taken to a drug rehabilitation centre.
“I’m not in touch with them and I don’t want to be in touch with them either,” he says.
“This Ramadan, I pray to Allah that they get a long life and understand what mistakes they made. I just don’t want to be a part of their lives anymore.
“I try to make myself believe that everything was a dream. My uncle and aunt taught me the real meaning of love,” he adds, as he tears up in the arms of his uncle.
Our interview with Rashid opens our eyes to the sorrowful stories of the scores of children who have lost their youth to experiences that border on child abuse.
The numbers don’t lie: more than 700 were identified as victims of child abuse last year alone – and it’s one that has doubled over the course of a single year.
In fact, the most recent statistics by the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD) reveal that a staggering 721 cases of child abuse were registered across Oman in 2018, as opposed to the 330 that were registered the year before.
This rise of more than 100 per cent from the previous year is a scourge on the nation’s reputation, but it remains lower in comparison with its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen – both countries that fail to reveal annual statistics and have been known to funnel the child trafficking racket through their shared border in the Middle East as per the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s revelations.
But child abuse itself is a global phenomenon that’s rising in numbers annually. In 2017 alone, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that up to 1 billion minors between the ages of 2 and 17 had endured some form of violence – either physical, emotional or sexual in nature.
Statistics only show one part of the story, however, according to Dr. Aisha al Barwani, a clinical psychologist, life-coach and social worker based out of Oman.
She says: “The key to tackling child abuse lies in first understanding the underlying problem around it: lack of education on the topic.
“Being a parent or a caretaker is one of the most satisfying yet demanding jobs, and one needs to realise that your actions and teachings will lay the foundation for the child that is to become a well-rounded human being.”
Aisha makes a strong case. Our research leads us to Child Help – an international organisation that specialises in offering support to child abuse victims and survivors. It describes the act as one that arises from when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child.
This can take many forms, beginning from the more obvious ones such as physical and sexual abuse and all the way to exploitation, emotional abuse and neglect.
“Today, most people simply recognise child abuse as extreme cases of physical or sexual abuse, not knowing fully well that what they’re doing probably classifies as a criminal offence in the eyes of the Omani law.
“As per the Omani law, a child is an individual who falls under the age of 18 as per the Gregorian calendar.
“A lot of parents that come to me for counselling are shocked to find out that neglect falls as a punishable offence. The obvious meaning of the word aside, neglect is when a parent or caretaker fails to give love, affection, care or even medical and educational supervision to their children thereby putting their mental or physical health at risk.
“Sadly, it’s something the people only realise when they hit the absolute low point, which could result in harm to the child.”
Her point is proven correct as just moments after our interview, we stumble upon the news of the passing of two children – Nasser and Hamad – aged five and three who suffocated to death after they were locked inside their family car.
This, she points out later, falls under the category of neglect. It’s a coincidence but one that has shocked the residents of the Sultanate, and one that raises awareness on how children must be attended to in the summer, especially around vehicles.
Staggeringly, neglect comprises of the single most number of victims and survivors in Oman, with over 356 currently listed among them. This is followed by physical abuse at 183, psychological abuse at 109 and sexual abuse at 71.
Child sexual abuse is classified as an act ranging from groping to rape that is committed against anyone under the age of 18. As per the UNICEF, more than 120 million children around the world are either victims or survivors of the ordeal.
In a one-on-one interview with Y, one official from the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD) sheds light on the current issues faced by the nation with respect to child abuse. He tells us: “There’s no way we can compare our numbers with what other nations are showing, because for one, every single child abuse victim matters to us.
“We could have two cases every year and we’d still consider our job to be far from over. But as we clocked 721 cases last year, we’re having mixed emotions on how we must deal with this situation.
“The first point is that we now know what we’re dealing with here – the numbers and the types of abuse are slowly being identified. Secondly, we’re glad to now know that our hotlines are working as we had intended.
“One of the greatest worries we ever had was if people would reach out to our hotline – which is a toll-free number ‘1-1-0-0’ we set up in 2017 and is operational 24/7 – that you can call to report yourself as a victim or even if an adult does it on your behalf.
The official then goes on to reveal how the numbers of abuse victims now receiving treatment across centres across the nation are on the rise, and are at the highest it has ever been. A reason, he says, for this trend is because more people are now making use of the hotline.
“We cannot afford to waste any time when it comes to the welfare of the people – and children have become one of our top priorities. Some of the calls that we receive in the hotline number require immediate attention and treatment.
“If it’s something like molestation or sexual abuse, we will request immediate intervention by the child protection officials and in most cases, the Royal Oman Police (ROP). Not only is such a situation safer for the child, it’ll also give us a chance for us to put a stop on the trauma that the offender may be causing from acts they’re committing outside their homes on other victims we don’t know as well.
“Last year, I was personally involved in the rescue of one young girl – I think she was in her early teens – who was being sexually abused and assaulted by a family member. She was groomed to be a victim to the perpetrator so she knew very little about what was going on.
“But, it was her strength and her gut instinct that what was going on was not normal that then gave her the strength to confess everything to her maid. They called the hotline together and that’s how she was rescued from that environment.
“We cannot reveal more about the girl to anyone,” he tells us.
A quick research, however, reveals that in most cases, when an abuse victim has been identified, they’re shifted to Dar al Wefaq (a temporary care centre) in the Family Protection Department. This house is dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of abused children.
In an earlier interview with local media, Shams bint Said Hamoud al Hajri, the director of the Family Protection Department in the MoSD, said: “We ensure full confidentiality regarding the complaint and the caller.
“It’s a free line. Depending upon the complaint, it is forwarded to the relevant authorities.”
In an earlier interview with Y, Sayyida Basma al Said, the founder of the Whispers of Serenity clinic in Oman revealed: “No matter how old or strong the child is, if they have faced mistreatment, they need to receive treatment.
“A reason for this is a child who is in their development stage grows up with these negative incidents embedded in their brain. And this can lead to a lot of immediate or long-term repercussions.
“Violence of any form that a child undergoes in a safe space – like in their homes, schools or even in the parks – can cause serious impairments to brain development. This can then be associated with struggles with mental health that in later stages can trigger episodes leading up to re-victimisation and even suicide.
“So, it’s vital that the necessary treatment is given to children – and in the most professional manner possible,” she adds.
Oman’s fight against child abuse has been a long one – albeit, it’s a fight that the government is tackling with efficiency.
For instance, child protection officers have been appointed in accordance with the Ministerial Decision No 43/2016, who must visit families and childcare institutions regularly to root out offenders.
The Omani law is tight-knit when it comes to punishing offenders, but as per our source at the ROP, the government takes a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual offenders.
In an electronic message, the official writes to us: “An offender committing an act of sexual abuse against a child will be prosecuted and be handed over a prison term of not less than five years and no more than 15 years, and a fine of no less than RO5,000 and no more than RO10,000.
“However, the law also specifies how acts of violence such as the kidnapping or sale of a child, transportation of a child’s organs, coercion of a child into performing any kind of sexual activity, sexual solicitation of a child for or for any form of activity including pornographic performances or materials, publishing, circulating, or even possession of such material, can result in a similar sentence”.
Perhaps it’s this approach towards child abuse that keeps survivors such as Rashid hoping for a better future. The young Omani, who only started his education at the age of 10, dreams of becoming a police officer.
“One day I will join the ROP and prove myself there. I have a lot of respect for them.
“The reason for this fascination to join the force comes from when my neighbours called the ROP after they heard loud noises of screaming from our house on that dreadful night.
“They broke down the door after what seemed like forever to find me hiding under the bed. I was so scared when I heard someone else break into the house. I didn’t know it was the police.
“But my parents were taken in soon after – it’s the last I saw them. But, just moments later, after they heard my wails, one officer offered me a hand to pull myself out from under the bed. It was the first time I held a hand so tightly and it didn’t hit me back.
“That gave me hope. And it still does.”
*Name changed to protect identity