Saturday, March 21, 2009

Accurate studies essential in fight against child abuse

The Saudi government launched earlier this month a national campaign to raise awareness of child abuse.

The campaign has the strong backing of the Royal Family and it was launched with a three-day conference in Riyadh by the National Family Safety Program. An estimated 1,500 delegates from throughout the GCC and other Arab countries attended.

The launching of the awareness program, which focuses on physical, sexual, emotional and negligent abuse, coincides with the release of some rather startling and troubling child abuse statistics that have gained currency in both the Western and Arab media.

I say “startling and troubling” not because the numbers of abused children in the Gulf region in general and Saudi Arabia in particular are high (they are), but because the method of collection of data that ultimately provides these numbers is missing.

It gives the impression that there is a child abuse epidemic inside Saudi Arabia.Last week, Inam Rabui, head of Himaya Association, a charitable organization that provides protection to women and children from abuse, told a stunned audience at an educational forum at Dar Al-Hekma College, that the number of reported cases of child abuse in Saudi Arabia had tripled over a three-year period.

During the first year of Himaya’s existence, the institution received 80 child abuse complaints. Midway through the second year that number more than doubled to 163. By the third year, the number tripled to 281 complaints. She further said that out of a total of 524 cases, 284 children were abused by their fathers.

In an unrelated study conducted by Al-Watan newspaper, journalist Mohammed Al-Matter reported that 83 percent of children under the age of 18 had received e-mails that contained “inappropriate content.” Al-Watan also discovered that 62 percent of Gulf children were contacted by a pedophile in either a chat room or in e-mail. “The number of children exposed to pornography and bullying is very high,” said a spokeswoman for the Bahrain Women’s Association for Human Development.

Rabui’s statistics are likely accurate, and if one considers the number of unreported child abuse cases, I’m sure her numbers would triple. Troubling, however, is that the statistics reveal very little, although I don’t blame Rabui so much as I do Gulf media. First, the statistics imply that child abuse has tripled in Saudi Arabia when actually it’s really only Himaya’s complaint caseload that has tripled and is not a true picture of what is occurring in Saudi Arabia. Second, little is taken into account why the numbers have tripled.

I suspect that exposure to satellite television and the Internet and a more open Arab youth culture has led to greater awareness. While exposing a family’s dirty laundry, in this case child abuse remains taboo in our society, our greater awareness of the world around us has made us less tolerant of abuses. It’s one reason why there is not only greater outcry in the Saudi blogosphere about forced marriages of young girls but also in the Saudi mainstream media.

Even more troubling than those misleading statistics quoted at the Dar Al-Hekma forum is Al-Watan’s attempt to raise the fears of every Arab parent with these exceptionally high percentages of pedophiles lurking in chat rooms to prey on our children. I question the authenticity of the study simply because the methodology is missing. Newspapers conducting their own studies are usually rife with flaws because collecting data to conduct what purports to be a scientific study is not in a newspaper’s area of expertise.

It takes a polling company with experience to conduct such a study. And as far as I can tell, Al-Watan’s study was far from scientific.It’s negligent of the media, whether in the West or the Gulf, to serve up these statistics in a vacuum, reporting without context and discussion of methodology.

Yet these two studies were reported widely and taken at face value in the Arab- and English-language media.This should not take away from the excellent work by Himaya or the rare attempts at investigative journalism by the Arab press. Child abuse is a horrific problem and a shame on every country that tries to sweep it under the rug. The Saudi government in particular is to be commended for its diligent work to stem the problem.

But we also run the risk of misrepresenting a problem with flawed analysis and faulty news reporting. Inflated or flawed statistical information also serves to promote fear and hysteria.I’m reminded of a series of incidents that occurred in the United States throughout the 1980s in which child sexual abuse statistics were released by various rights organizations at regular intervals.

At the same time rumors spread that some pre-schools were havens for pedophiles who routinely sexually abused little children. Stories surfaced that some pre-schools were practicing witchcraft and conducting Satanist rituals. A famous case in California led to the jailing of an entire family that owned one such pre-school. At the end of the trial, not a single family member was convicted of any of the hundreds of counts leveled at them.

And most investigations into other pre-schools found the allegations were unfounded.No, child abuse studies did not lead to those scandals, but we have a tendency to put our faith in rock solid numbers, even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny.If Saudis are to be transparent and ensure that reporting child abuse statistics are accurate and enlightening, then more deliberation at how we arrive at statistical reporting is critical to fighting the fight against child abuse.



Kashmirviews said...

Nicely weaved-I enjoyed reading. But I am shocked to learn that children are the victims of incest too. But i am equally happy that people are writing on it.

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