The NGO Safe gets the Ministry of Education’s go-ahead to raise awareness about child molestation in schools.
By Luciana Magharius
Photography by Mohsen Allam
At the end of last year, a criminal court in Assiut sentenced a man to five years in prison for raping his niece 21 times over the course of a year. According to media reports, the girl’s mother didn’t find out until a doctor, during a medical examination, discovered the girl’s hymen had been broken. Only then did the girl admit to her mother what her uncle had done.
It is a frighteningly common occurrence, says Sara Aziz, founder of Safe, an NGO working to educate society about children molestation. A certified counselor for molestation victims, Aziz shares two cases she’s involved with that never made it to the courts, much less into the media.
In one, a 10-year-old girl living in a Cairo slum was sexually abused by her uncle. When the mother found out and confronted her husband with what his brother did, the father defended the uncle, telling his wife, “You leave but he will never leave.”
In a separate incident in an upper-class district of Cairo, a driver conspired with a maid to sexually abuse a girl; when the child complained, however, no one believed her.
The point behind Aziz’s anecdotes is that child molestation has no specific demographic: It affects everyone regardless of gender, color or social class. The problem is rarely addressed, in part because of the taboo nature of the crime, and in part because the families try to cover it up and save face. In the Assiut case, the victim’s father and grandfather both knew what was going on and tried to prevent the mother from taking the girl to the doctor. When the woman threatened to go to the police, the men allegedly detained her and her daughter.
Aziz, 26, launched Safe in 2012 to educate the society about children molestation through a program that tailors the message for many different audiences. While the NGO is officially registered as Safe, Aziz also sees it as an acronym for Sexual Abuse Foundation for Education. First and foremost, she says, Safe’s mission is to raise children’s awareness about sexual abuse so they can protect themselves and to empower them to speak up if they are abused. But they also spread the word to the adults. “We believe we need to educate the community. We educate the parents, and the teachers in nurseries and schools.”
To do this, the NGO has been presenting the Safe program at private schools, corporations and at select events. Safe, which now includes more than 50 volunteer instructors, will be reaching an even larger audience in the coming months. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education approved in principle Safe’s program curriculum, which means the team can start reaching out to public schools as well.
“The power of being approved by the ministry is that schools will be obliged to allow Safe to give sessions to the school’s community,” Aziz says with excitement. “We can ask any school to allow us in within a specific time to do our program, and they cannot refuse.”
Six-year-old Seif knows all about his body and the private parts that nobody has the right to see or touch. When his friend asked to join him in the toilet, he said “NO” and then told his mother about the incident. Another time, an adult wanted to take off Seif’s swimsuit in the sea, and again the boy refused and alerted his mother.
Seif is the fictional hero of an 18-page book called I’m Precious, written by Aziz to help children understand what sexual abuse is, how to report it and how concerned adults should react. The book goes through different real-life situations that represent distinct attempts of sexual abuse. Seif’s mother is very supportive and she encourages him to involve her in such situations.
The book is used in the Safe sessions for very young children to teach them how to protect themselves. Sessions aimed at teenagers expand on those lessons and teach them not to sexually abuse others. In their sessions, parents learn to acknowledge the issue of child molestation and how to react if their child reports it. Parents also sit in on the sessions for their children, and are asked to stand up and promise, “I will believe your story and support you till we regain your rights.”
There are also sessions for teachers and other adults about the signs that a child is being abused and how to tell the parents. Safe provides these tailored sessions monthly at its office in Heliopolis, and has also presented its program at 15 international schools including Al-Karma, and Modern English School. Aziz has also convinced a few corporations, including OTVentures, to host awareness sessions for their employees. “This is for the sake of the community,” she explains. “To change a community, you need to work with all its participants.”
Once Safe finalizes its agreement with the Ministry of Education, the team will start with three public schools in Heliopolis this year. Only three, Aziz explains, because they give sessions for children, parents, nannies, teachers, bus drivers and supervisors. “It is a huge project.”
Aziz recognizes that Safe cannot possible reach everyone personally. She wrote the booklet about Seif to help parents talk with their children about sexual abuse, even if they can’t attend a Safe session. “The book helps each mother to open discussions with her child. For example, while she is going through Seif’s life and she is glorifying his refusal to people trying to abuse him, the kid might surprise her saying my friend or my uncle does this to me.”
Marina Ramsis, team leader for Safe’s children sessions, adds, “The book may not be enough to teach the children everything, but if it reaches the children [not attending a Safe session], it will tell them the important information needed to make them aware of the issue and to protect themselves.”
A Personal Mission
Seif’s story is in part Aziz’s story. Aziz was abused by a member of her family when she was six, the same age as Seif. At first her family was not supportive, but they soon realized she was traumatized and in need of counseling. Sara did got through counseling shortly after the incident and grew up to live a seemingly ordinary life: She studied commerce at Ain Shams University and became an assistant quality manager at Thomas Cook.
Aziz’s career path changed in 2009, when she was helping her friends with charity work in a shantytown called Akracha, near Abou Zaabal in Helwan. There, she met a girl who had been abused by her father for six years.
“I heard the girls in Akracha narrating their own stories of sexual abuse, and I was also still in pain,” Aziz recalls. “I felt an urge to do something. I started to study to help this girl.”
Aziz began to dedicate her vacation time to attending classes in Alexandria for a diploma program from the Middle Eastern School of Sexual Abuse Related Pastoral Counseling (MERSARC), a branch of Denmark’s International School of Sexual Abuse Related Pastoral Counseling.
After four years, she finished her diploma with a specialty in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy of the sexually abused — the youngest of only seven graduates of the 100 who started the program. For her graduation project, Aziz presented the case of a very well-educated, upper-class Egyptian female who had molested 11 different children. Aziz says she counseled that woman for more than three years before she stopped the abuse.
The newly minted counselor was not content with just the MERSARC diploma as it focused only on adults; she wanted to help the abused children. So she traveled to the United States and enrolled in certification program at the University of Arkansas. Her coursework included a class on interviewing children and preparing them to testify in court. “It discusses how to let a child recount what happened to him in a court,” Aziz explains. “It was so critical that we have some men from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attending with us. Surprisingly, I got 100 out of 100.”
Since 2009, Aziz has worked in sexual abuse and rape counseling for children and women who were sexually abused, using art therapy and empty chair therapy. “I put an empty chair in front of the victim. The victim talks to the abuser as if he was sitting in the chair. She expresses all the emotions that she suffers. Some of the victims might cry, scream and [contort] their faces out of anger.”
The counselor also works with some female abusers but refers male abusers to other counselors because she doesn’t have enough time for their cases. Regardless of what a victim or an abuser tells her in counseling, Aziz cannot report the abusers because, according to the Egyptian legal system, the victim or the victim’s relatives are the only ones with the right to report the crime. The restriction frustrates her.
After Aziz returned from the US, she applied to register Safe as an NGO with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. “Once I received the approval to start Safe in 2012, I bought an apartment in Heliopolis with my own money and turned it into an office. When a committee from the ministry visited the office, they were so impressed that they sent their children.”
Aziz used material from MERSARC and the University of Arkansas to create the Safe programs. She usually consults three psychiatrists; one in Egypt, one in Denmark and one in the US. She also got permission from the National Child Protection Training Center in the US to use its curriculums and update them to suit Egypt’s conservative culture.
During its first year, Safe reached about 12,000 children through the NGO’s office, schools and orphanages. Through an agreement with the Ministry of Health, the team held sessions for hundreds of children during a vaccination campaign.
“We had a huge event in which we gave a session to 1,500 people with developmental disabilities,” Aziz recalls. “These are people in their 50s and 60s, but their minds are like a 10-year-old child. The team had to be very professional to deal with them as children without feeling weird.”
Big plans, limited resources
Aziz foresees many challenges as she proceeds with her dream of taking Safe’s awareness program into nurseries, schools, corporations and shelters for street children. The greatest challenge is funding. The team depends on the fees from the office visits only; Aziz doesn’t accept any funds from outside.
Session fees can be as little as LE 20 for the children’s groups to up to LE 250 for new trainers. “The books, certificates, and materials for the sessions in the international schools are paid by the school,” Aziz explains. “However, the sessions in the public schools will be for free, and here is the problem: We don’t have enough funds. We don’t even have enough people. We will need corporations and large businesses to sponsor our program.”
The counselor is also worried that some people will oppose the program because they do not understand the difference between sex education and sexual abuse awareness.
In the long term, Aziz dreams of having a multi-story building that provides comprehensive services to sexual abuse victims. It would include the nursery, the counseling sessions, several classrooms and conference rooms, legal department and a call center. She envisions a time when people can call Safe to report sexual abuse of adults or children, and the Safe team can report the crimes to the police and counsel the victims.
To generate additional income right now, the NGO is opening Safe Nursery in Masaken Sheraton in February, with space for more than 120 children. Using Montessori education techniques based on discovery rather than direct instruction, the nursery focuses more on values than on academic sciences. The curriculum will include age-appropriate sexual education and sexual abuse awareness.
“Safe Nursery is our treasure. We have five years to build up values and ideas within the children that they will never forget,” Aziz explains. “These years will make them different than the others.” et
Up-to-date statistics about sexual abuse of children in Egypt are hard to come by. In 1995, Dr. Faten Abdel Rahman El Tanbary, an assistant professor at Ain Shams University’s Post Graduate Childhood Studies Institute, published a study indicating 18% of Egyptian children are sexually abused. The abuser in 35% of these cases is a family member or close acquaintance.
A 2009 report by USAID found that 10 to 27 % of women and girls in Egypt reported having been sexually abused either as children or adults, according to a study based on surveys in 35 countries conducted prior to 1999. The report acknowledged, however that incestuous abuse was under reported, with less information available about abuse by in-laws, parents, or brothers than by intimate partners.
In some cases, the abusers are schoolteachers. During the 2012-2013 academic year, the Association of the Development and Enhancement for Women identified 48 cases in five governorates of teachers sexually abusing schoolgirls.
“I believe now the abuser in more than 93% of the cases is a family member,” says Safe founder Sara Aziz, who counsels victims of child molestation. Her definition of family extended to trusted adults. “The abuser could be a father, aunt, neighbor, maid, driver or teacher. At the end, they are all still part of the family. For example, we see the driver every day, and he is trusted to be a part of the family.”
Signs of Sexual Molestation
Molested children can exhibit both psychological and physical symptoms. Dr. Aziz Abdel Gayad, a pediatrician, says parents should be on the lookout for signs of physical injuries such as genital itching or pain, genital or rectal bleeding, recurrent urinary infections, vaginal discharge, bruises, and difficulty walking and sitting. The least physical damage occurs if the molester only touches the child’s genitals. However, molesters tend to engage in oral and anal sex with boys and girls, as well as vaginal intercourse. These can negatively affect a child’s sexuality as an adult and can leave some girls physically unable to conceive.
Psychological indicators may be more difficult to detect and are not always related to molestation. These include a fear and mistrust of adults, anxiety, loss of confidence, phobias, nightmares, and problems at schools. Some indicators are easier to realize than the others because they appear suddenly on the abused children. For example, a child suddenly detests going to a place that he used to love like his grandparents’ house, school or club, or he suddenly mistrusts a person he used to trust. Some molested children grow a tendency to initiate or imitate sexual behavior with peers. They try to reframe the situation, for example, a weak child abused by a stronger older person may himself try to molest a weak child. Victims of molestation may also become depressed, unassertive, isolated from others and irritable.
If you know a child who has been molested, Aziz recommends you take the following action:
If you are a relative or guardian of the child, file a report at your local police station. Punishing the molester is the first step toward protecting the child’s rights. Call the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights at +2 (02) 2363-6811or 2362-0467 or the National Council for Children and Motherhood’s Child Helpline at 16000. These agencies can provide information and help in legal procedures and will file a complaint to the prosecutor general.
Consult a counselor as soon as possible, then be supportive and follow the counselor’s instructions in providing the necessary treatment.
Safe •Tel: +2 (012) 0457-5909 •www.safe