Stories about child sexual abuse, and to a lesser degree sexual harassment of women in workplace, are finding their ways more and more into the Lebanese media.
The shocking story last June of the school teacher who was accused of sexually harassing 11 female students - aged between six and eight - in one of the most prestigious Catholic schools in Mount Lebanon, could have been the main driver behind the widening coverage on this subject.
In Lebanon, like in most Middle Eastern societies, sexual harassment is a taboo.
Schools pretend it doesn’t exist. Parents choose to turn a blind eye on the subject. Women learn to stay quiet. Children are children and are seldom believed when they do speak out. They sometimes tell, because they are immersed yet in the culture of shame.
But most of the time, telling doesn’t pay. The culprit goes unpunished, and so the harassment continues.
Several cases of child sexual harassment went public in the past, but were swiftly hushed up. It turned out, as in most cases the world over, that the culprit was a family member. And so, out of shame once again, everybody pretends nothing happened, and everything goes back to normal.
A study in 2008 by an NGO called “kafa” – or enough – that campaigns against sexual harassment, revealed the socking size of the problem. According to the study, 16 percent of the children in Lebanon – or one in seven children – suffer from sexual harassment.
The study was based on recorded incidents. The real number could, of course, be much higher.
Hundreds of families, from all religions in Lebanon have a story like this: I remember a relative coming home in tears once, when he was only seven, telling his mother that their neighbour crossed him and guided him to a corner, where he stripped him and started touching him.
His mother was outraged. But that was it. She told him not to come near the man again. But she wouldn’t go to the police, knowing only too well that there was little point.
Victims of sexual abuse, children or adults, are not properly protected by law in Lebanon. There is the “Law for protection of minors,” but activists say it is not enough, and is very vague.
An attempt by “kafa” to introduce a new law that makes sexual harassment a crime is stuck since 2008 in the parliament – where of course no stories of sexual harassment of female reporters or secretaries ever emerge!
But this is also much more complicated. Religious figures in Lebanon – who have control over personnel status laws – also objected. They worried this might affect their authority.
For all these reasons, the story of the eleven girls who were victims of sexual abuse by a predatory paedophile has become so very big. It was the first time in Lebanon, where parents got together and decided to take legal action against a paedophile.
Their courage brought media attention. But this led to another problem – how these issues are covered.
The coverage mostly helped to shed light on a serious issue in society and was welcomed by campaigners, who objected only to some journalists who couldn’t tell the difference between a scoop and the right of the victim to have their identity protected.
And so, the names of the victims – to the disbelief of the families involved - were proudly announced on air by one idiotic and irresponsible local television reporter, who thought he had a scoop.
Several NGOs have tried to educate people, about child abuse, filling the void left by parents and schools.
‘Kafa’ is one of them. It recently launched a campaign, funded by the European Union, aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse.
The real challenge turned out to be, not educating the children, but overcoming resistance from families and private schools, as revealed by the Zoya Rohana, the director of Kafa.
Most parents in Lebanon send their children to private schools if they can afford it. Those offer a much better education than public schools that are usually under-staffed, and located in crumbling buildings.
But there is one problem with private schools. They are run by religious authorities which isn’t necessarily a bad thing by definition. Except in Lebanon it coincides with a culture of shame and the desire of religious leaders to maintain power. So covering up and denying the abuse becomes the easiest option for everybody, except for the victim.
Schools aren’t the only problem.
Parents, not all of them, do not often react. Some even try to hide the abuse, especially if it is coming from within the family.
So maybe, in the case of the Catholic school, the fact that the perpetrator was from outside the family groups made it easier for parents to come together and challenge the status – quo.
What is the most shocking though, is the recent confession of the minister of social affairs Wael Abou Faour, that the Catholic school case isn’t the first and only one, and that there are many, many more, in schools and at homes. And yet the government has done little.
Till the Lebanese overcome their shame and religious bigotry and face the corruption of men in power, stories of the eleven girls in the school will be repeated. And so will many more.
Raghida Bahnam is a Lebanese reporter at Al Arabiya in Dubai. She has covered international affairs, including Lebanon, from both Beirut and London and now Dubai.