Yes. In this visit I encountered a large number of cases of sexual abuse among the children. That’s a phenomenon that has always existed, but in this visit, and also in the previous visit, in August, it suddenly reached far larger dimensions. It’s become positively huge. More than one-third of the children I saw in the Jabalya [refugee] camp reported being sexually abused. Children from ages 5 to 13.
What do you mean by “sexual abuse”?
Everything from being touched to rape.
Who are the perpetrators?
Adults and other children of the same age or older, or someone in the family. Parents, brothers, uncles. In one case I saw, the mother of a mentally disabled 12-year-old girl told me that the girl was behaving very irritably. Every time I put my hand close to her face she flinched sharply, she looked really frightened. I asked the mother if she’d always been like this, and she said yes. I asked her to leave the room and I spoke to the girl. She told me that her father was abusing her. She didn’t say “abusing,” of course; she said he sleeps with her. It was utterly shocking, even for me, and I am used to such stories. My whole body trembled when she talked about it.
What did you say to her?
That a father is forbidden to touch his daughter. I tried to teach her how to defend herself. I know it won’t necessarily help.
And you can’t tell the mother.
No. That would only put the girl at even greater risk, if people know that she told. In general, when children are abused within the family, the mother knows and is silent. I believe that this mother also knew. By the way, that is the most severe trauma for the child: not the abuse, but the mother’s betrayal.
A conspiracy of silence. It’s even more complex in such a conservative society, where everything related to sex is taboo.
Conservatism is also found among mental health professionals. They don’t talk about sexuality, about sexual abuse. If one of my colleagues encounters children who have been sexually abused, he is silent.