Sexual Harassment of Children in Syria

“A feeling of humiliation, weakness and inferiority"


Dellair Youssef writes about sexual abuse of children in Syria, the prevalence of the problem and the impact it has on the victims. The conservative nature of the society makes the issue rarely discussed, yet Youseef concludes it is widespread.

24 April 2019

Dellair Youssef

Dellair Youssef is a Syrian writer and filmmaker. He has directed several films including ‘The Princes of the Bees’ (Umara’ An-Nahl), ‘Exile’ (Al-Manfa), ‘Banyas: The Beginnings’ (Banyas: Al-Bidayyat), and ‘Clothesline’ (Habl Al-Ghasil). He is also the author of ‘Tales of this Time’ (Hikayat Min Hadha Az-Zaman), which was printed in 2014 in Beirut. Youssef currently lives in in Berlin, Germany.

Translated by: Maya Milani

"I hate the smell, I am disgusted by the sexual act because of the smell. Smells like wet carpets.” That’s how Mohammad started telling his story[1]. Mohammad (Pseudonym) is 25- year-old, he comes from a village in rural Raqqa and is currently living in Berlin. Before he narrated the details of how his cousin, who is nine years older than him, raped him when he was only seven years old. He explained the 16-year- old’s action was a result of social and psychological pressures.

He described to me the nature of the conservative community that leads to sexual repression, paired with poverty, ignorance and lack of sexual education in schools. All these factors were only made worse by the social pressure individuals in his village felt because of the obsessive conversations in the community about shame and good reputation. He said: “If I had stayed in the village, I would've become a rapist. It’s a full circle, the victim becomes a perpetrator.”

Mohammad was uneasy as he told me his story. We met in a cafe in Berlin in November 2018. He timidly asked me about the investigation I was working on about sexual harassment against children, he had seen a survey I had published online about it. He told me he wanted to tell his story. Mohammad spoke up about what happened to him for the first time ever.

His teenage cousin, also a minor, raped him in the room he used as a study. Mohammad was seven years old, his cousin asked him to come into the room and lock the door behind him, then he raped him. Mohammad remembers the saliva and the stickiness of sperm inside him. In the same way, the cousin raped his younger brother. The cousin then kept calling demeaning sexual nicknames in public around the village until all the other children started nicknaming them too. A feeling of humiliation, weakness and inferiority overtook Mohammad back then. The stigma he was left with encouraged others to assault him, as did his other cousin who raped him twice in the cattle barn.

Mohammad said child rape and sexual harassment was very widely spread phenomenon in his community and was almost part of the culture, everyone he knew had experienced something of the sort.

I remember...

I was reading about cases of child abuse in US churches when I remembered an assault incident that happened to me when I was ten years old in our family shop in the crowded Thawra street in downtown Damascus. Suffocating heat and no customers at noon, I was alone in the shop when a man walked in and asked about the merchandise. I answered politely. I don’t remember what he looked like or anything about him now. The incident had been erased from my mind somehow, and it surfaced as I read the news reports about sexual assault.

He asked me for a glass of water, I went to the back of the shop to get it, and he followed me. He asked me to touch his erect member and he groped me vulgarly. He wanted to rape me, but fearing our neighbours when we heard voices from the next shop made him leave. Perhaps it all happened in less than 2 minutes, but this was not the only harassment I suffered. I can remember now 6 different incidents on different occasions when adults; male and female, relatives and strangers, molested or assaulted me when I was a child. The attacks started when I was eight and continued until I turned sixteen and became able to defend myself and stand up to the aggressors, which happened several times. I did not speak of these incidents untill much later. I was afraid to tell, afraid of the social pressure and the family reaction.

In recent years during discussions with Syrian friends from different cities and social backgrounds, there was a shared sense that many Syrians were victims of sexual harassment during their childhood. Because of the nature of Syrian society, the vast majority refuse to speak about it, this includes the fear of the assaulted child to tell his parents what happened.

These incidents are individual and often carried out by someone close to the child; a family member, a religious leader, a neighbour, or a family friend. Sometimes the perpetrator is a total stranger like someone you encounter on a bus, or a taxi driver, or a shop customer as was the case for me.

All of this motivated me to start working on this investigation. I did not find during my research any official statistic published in Syria, which lead me to post a survey[2] that targeted a random sample of Syrians of different age groups. The survey included short and specific questions. It was answered by 268 adults between the age of eighteen and sixty, originating from different Syrian cities and villages according to their answers. Of those,143 individuals (%53,4) were male, and 122 (%45,5) were female, while 3 people preferred not to state their gender.

What is your Gender? Blue is male, Red is female, Orange is "prefer not to say".

The main question in the survey is: Were you harassed as a child?

I found the result both shocking and frightening; %71.3 of 265 answers, meaning 191 people answered “yes" they had been harassed as children, in addition %5.2 (14 individuals) of this random sample said they don’t know if what happened to them was a harassment or not.

Were you harassed as children? Blue is Yes, Red is No, Orange is Maybe/ I don’t know.

Another question in the survey asked: Have you spoken about the incident before? It was answered by 203 people, %47,3 of them answered “No”, they had not spoken of it before.

Have you spoken about the incident before? Blue is Yes, Red is No.

In a research paper[3] published in 2005 titled “A Catalog of Biases in Questionnaires”, it is mentioned that responders usually tend to give answers that express their content or disapproval, or biased according to the responder’s emotions. Their answers don’t necessarily state the truth. With that in mind, we need to keep a critical approach while reading these answers, yet they remain an important reference point in estimating the extent to which the phenomenon of child sexual harassment is prevalent in Syria.

Aghar Jdead, a psychologist based in Berlin, supported this notion[4] and affirmed that “the incident remains in the sub-conscience of the person even if they don’t remember it. It is an assault because it is based on violence, the perpetrator used violence to carry out their personal desires.” He added that the memory will one day surface, and the victim will talk about it despite the fear which accompanies that usually, a fear that could linger for 30 years or more. “What happened is a psychological shock that needs treatment because it will most likely cause a trauma, traumas do not heal on their own.”

Jdead added: “Ignorance, repression, not talking about sexual issues and lack of transparency in the family leads to individuals being unable to make choices or lacking the necessary awareness to say no”. He emphasized that when the aggressor is a child or a teenager, a minor under eighteen years of age, then he is also a victim of the parental irresponsibility and of social repression: “You can not compare the victims, or argue who is the bigger victim. You can only  measure the trauma the incident leaves in each of them.”

Jdead insisted that the family must provide a safe environment for the child before and after an assault occurs, which leaves us with a more complex problem when the perpetrator is the father or the mother or a sibling, “in this case, there needs to be a public procedure, as is the case in some European countries, and the child should be taken away from the family and placed in an appropriate and safe environment to live in”.

Rasha's story

Rasha is 26-year-old, she comes from a small Christian sect[5] in rural Syria. She said she wanted to tell me her story, and I will be the first person outside her close circle (her husband and a few friends) that will learn what happened. She asked me to withhold the names of the people and places fearing a backlash within her sect and family and the pressure that will cause in her life and that of her family, so Rasha is a pseudonym.

 Rasha went to church since she was a child. When she became a teenager, she joined the church youth group. She spent all her summers at the church to escape domestic problems and her father’s negligence towards the family. The local church priest was an exciting and attractive character, a “revolutionary social leader” and a father to two daughters, one of which was the same age of Rasha. She spent much time in their house and slept over sometimes, as her parents, like everyone around, trusted the man completely.

In the summer of 2006, Rasha was 13, and she was sleeping over at her friend’s place, at the priest’s house, when he woke her up at night and asked her to come with him. He had previously touched her in an awkward manner, but her blind trust in him prevented her from doubting his intentions. That night, in his private room, he told her he was going to teach her sexual things like the difference between a man and a woman. He said she had reached an age in which she might face some sexual problems, and he wants to protect her so that she is not abused by any man. He started touching her and kissing her and practiced masturbation till he orgasmed.

“I was scared and confused, I knew nothing, I didn't know what the word “orgasm" meant, he asked me: "Do you want me to make you orgasm?” and I thought he meant the menstrual period. That night I got my first period, I was in so much pain. The next day I fell to a strong fever. I remember how I was crying. It happened again six times that summer. It was always in his office, and he always chose times when there was no one around. He stopped doing that when he got scared of me exposing him, especially since I started avoiding him everywhere.”

At home, there were invisible boundaries preventing Rasha from talking about it, in addition to the fear and constant guilt she suffered.

Five years later the Syrian revolution erupted, and Rasha was a university student by then. She decided to confront the local priest and threatened to expose him if he did the same thing with other children, she was in constant contact with him due to the nature of the local environment and church activities.

During the second year of the revolution, Rasha was in Lebanon and wanted to return to Syria. She was told that she is wanted by the Syrian regime. She asked for help, so the priest stepped in. He got her into the country thanks to his good relations with regime officials. Before heading to their town, they stopped in a nearby village overnight because of intense battles on the way. For her misfortune, she was sick that day and he took care of her. That night he raped her. Rasha could not refuse, she said she had already lost her emotional virginity to him before “I didn't want to… but I couldn’t say no, he had broken me emotionally, he had broken everything and was in control of me. Until this day when I remember that person, I feel broken.

The legal framework

In a later[6] discussion with attorney Ghina Bdewy, she said the danger of sexual harassment against children lies in the fact that the perpetrator usually being a family member, or someone close to the family. That is why legislation usually imposes strict punishments adequate to the atrocity committed. “But Syrian legislations did not dedicate a separate section to address the crime of child harassment, it included it within the list of indecent actions, that are legally considered criminal.”

The Syrian penal code[7] states in article 489, amended in 2013:

1- Whoever forces intercourse on an individual other than their spouse through violence or threat is punished by a minimum of fifteen years of hard labour.

2- The punishment shall be no less than twenty one years if the victim is under fifteen years of age.

Article 505 states that “whoever touches or caresses in an immoral manner a minor under fifteen years of age, male or female, or a girl or a woman of over fifteen years of age, without their consent, is punished by no more than a year and a half in jail.”

The legislation also criminalized verbal harassment in article 506: “Whoever suggests to a minor under fifteen years of age, or a girl or a women over that age, an immoral action, or says to them immoral words, is punished by short term imprisonment of three days or a penalty of no more than 75 Syrian Pounds, or with both punishments”.

But the problem with those punishments, according to attorney Ghina Bdewy, lies in proving the occurrence of the incident. Proof needs witnesses and medical examinations which is a problem in a conservative society such as that in Syria. That is why Bdewy sees that it is “more efficient to dedicate a separate chapter in the Syrian law to crimes committed against children due to the specific nature and sensitivity of these crimes.”

In comparing the Syrian law with laws of some neighbouring countries, we find that the Lebanese penal code[8] in article 503 states that “whoever forces intercourse upon someone other than their spouse through violence or threat is penalized by no less than five years of hard labor and no less than seven years if the victim is under 15 years of age.”

The Jordanian penal code[9] states in article 292 that “whoever has intercourse with a female (other than his wife) without her consent, through force or threat or deceit, is penalized by no less than 15 years of temporary hard labor. Whoever rapes a girl under 15 years of age is punished by execution. The penalty is 20 years of hard labor if the victim is over 15 and under 18 years of age.”

Children made more vulnerable by war

After the Syrian revolution and its consequent transformation into open civil war, many resources state that most warring parties have used sexual violence , especially against women, as a weapon of war and humiliation. Many of those cases were of minor females that are under the age of 18. Many were arrested, mainly by the Syrian regime, tortured and harassed according to statements of survivors of Syrian regime prisons[10]. Some of the other warring parties, especially Jihadist organizations like Al-Nusra and ISIS, captured young girls and then treated them as slaves and sexual tools. There are no statistics on the numbers of children sexually abused in the conflict but a report was published by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018 titled I lost my dignity: Sexual and   violence in the Syrian Arab Republic[11]. The report begins by stating: “Sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls, men, and boys has been a persistent issue in Syria since the uprising in 2011”.

The issue of child sexual harassment becomes more pressing in displacement and refugee camps. However, the dire living conditions, social conservatism and the fear of resorting to courts in the host countries, in addition to the fear of social stigma, prevent parents and children from reporting sexual harassment incidents.

In an attempt to access sufficient information on assault incidents that occurred in camps in Lebanon I contacted[12] a psychological aid worker in one of the organizations working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She asked for her name to be withheld. She said parents and camp residents refuse to come forward on cases of sexual harassment against their kids if they learn of them. She also confirmed that “during three years of working with this organization, I have dealt with only 2 cases where sexual harassment was reported”.

The courage to speak out

I received many letters of support from harassment and rape victims since I started working on this investigation, most of which revolved around the importance of speaking out about this silent yet widespread phenomenon in the Syrian society. I also received tens of letters, through Facebook or email, or  through the survey that was published in November 2018  and its final question gave an option to further elaborate on the incidents. Through the survey alone I received about a hundred letters and stories.

    These letters tell stories of incidents that happened to their narrators during their childhood years. I mention here some parts of those letters as I received them without any editing. These incidents occurred in different Syrian cities during different years.

    • A relative harassed me, and I consequently fell sick for a week. I was hallucinating during my fever, and I also spoke of the incident. When my mother asked me later, I denied in fear of being blamed for it.
    • The teacher in a swimming school harassed me in the pool.
    • Full rape by the grocer of our street and I did not speak of it till I was twenty three and my family still doesn’t know…I only told some female and male friends.
    • It happened in the mosque when I was young learning the Quran. The teacher would touch my thighs several times. Disgusting feeling honestly. I spoke about it only recently, so after I turned thirty two.
    • I was sleeping at my grandmother's house. I shared the room with my elder cousin. He harassed my intimate body parts. What I remember is that after that I became very withdrawn after having been a spirited active child. I stopped talking with people or going out for about a year. I blamed myself for what happened, and I was so ashamed of myself and felt inferior to others. Even though at the time I did not understand what had happened, nor did I have a name for the incident, that it’s called harassment. It was hard for me as a child.
    • I was harassed by an elderly art teacher (He was over fifty). He insisted I stayed in his drawing workshop after all the students left, under the excuse “that I am slow in drawing and must finish this drawing today. I felt something suspicious and told him I must go, but he used the teacher’s authority and compelled me. He took my drawing tools and put them next to his table and made me sit next to him, no one else was left in the workshop. He started with my hair then my neck, but I left everything and ran away quickly, he was obviously very sexually aroused. Side note: The man had just recently got married.
    • My father is a sheikh in the mosque. Not the one that delivers the Friday sermon, but the one that reads the Quran. The first time my father had anal sex with me I was forteen years old. He taught me how to shut up and not scream and not tell my mother because he would punish me severely. My father was very strict and harsh and scary. But on the days that he did this with me he became very kind and gentle and treaded me distinctly better than he treated my siblings. That made me like it, and with the days it became a habit. He kept doing that from forteen untill I got into college and went to Damascus.

    [1] Personal interview in Berlin on 28th of November 2018.

    [2] The survey was published on the 26th of November 2018 on social media and 268 responses were received during November and December 2018.

    [3] Preventing Chronic Disease

    VOLUME 2: NO. 1 JANUARY 2005

    A Catalog of Biases in Questionnaires

    Bernard C.K. Choi, PhD, Anita W.P. Pak, PhD

    [4] Personal interview in Berlin on the 4th of January 2018

    [5] What is meant by a small Christian sect is that the girl descends from one of the various Christian sects in Syria,and the number of followers of this sect in country is small.

    [6] Personal contact via email and voice calls during February 2019

    [7] For an overview of the Syrian penal code (In Arabci) https://goo.gl/q9iHmy

    [8] For an overview of the Lebanese penal code (In Arabic) https://goo.gl/i2skzx

    [9] For an overview of the Jordanian penal code (In Arabic) https://goo.gl/nCggLV

    [10] A report by DW Arabic TV on the testimony of one of the survivors of Assad detention centres can be accessed at https://goo.gl/jUBFFY

    [11] Human Rights Council, 37th session (26 February – 23 March 2018)

    Agenda item 4: Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.

    “I lost my dignity”: Sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian Arab Republic”

    [12] Communication was made via WhatsApp application during January 2018

    This work is under a Creative Commons license. Attribution: Non commercial - ShareAlike 4.0. International license

    Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad