Safe Passage to Salvation .. Ethical Principles for Believing Survivors of Sexual Harassment and Assault
“I never talked about the issue before, no one asked me, or rather, no one cares?” This is what Laila told me, when I met her while I was working on documenting cases of sexual harassment and assault in care homes in our Arab world.
Laila (a pseudonym) told me that she has always been harassed by male and female supervisors, and often by her peers.
In the early stages of her childhood, she did not realize the meaning of what she was exposed to, but she felt that it was something offensive to her.
The harasser always suggested to her that what she was experiencing should be kept secret, and that revealing it was a sin that affected her alone.
And ever since she began to realize that these suggestions, down to the touch, were veiled harassment at times, and direct at many other times, Laila suppressed her voice until she lost it..
“This is the first time that I have spoken out about being sexually abused and harassed in a care home. No one asked me, isn’t it strange that no one asked me about my life in the home? Isn’t it strange?” This is how she answered me when I asked her about the reason that prevented her from reporting what she was subjected to, of verbal and physical harassment as a child, and then as a young woman in a care home.
And she added, “Who am I going to tell? What does it mean to report? And if you speak, what will happen? Nothing ever. They will blame me or they will say I am lying.”
I met her in prison, where she was serving her double sentence, after she refused to marry her rapist!
Laila found herself alone with a fetus forming in her womb, so she had to get rid of it in an unsafe way, which almost cost her her life.
“I had no one to turn to. It was easier for me to kill the fetus in my womb, to save it from the oppression of the world, than to marry the monster,” as she put it.
This incident is cruel, which began with the coercion of silence, leading to the imprisonment of the human being, who is the victim and not the executioner.
I say that it is coercion into silence out of intimidation from the perpetrator, but also because of the lack of confidence in an integrated system that does not win for rape victims and survivors, especially women and girls.
The truth is that Laila is not alone in not talking. This is what international reports have shown about the reality of institutional care.
In addition to several reports, which I prepared with the aim of reforming alternative care for children / girls in the Arab world, and on an international level as well.
Statistics indicate that one out of 3 children is exposed to sexual harassment in care institutions.
The painful reality of these care homes prompted me to look at issues of harassment in general, to compare the reality of care institutions with the reality of the revelations of survivors, especially children and adolescents.
What was the result?
I must mention here that I had started writing this research when the harasser, Samer Mawlawi, was released after some of the survivors refused to testify against him.
A situation that contributed to paving the way for a gap in the investigation, accompanied by the complicity of the investigator, which led to the release of the criminal.
The story actually began in December 2021, when a female student decided to talk about her experience in a Facebook post, and indicated that she had been harassed by a professor who took advantage of his teaching position.
Accordingly, others were encouraged, and revealed that they had received e-mails containing sexual suggestions from the same professor, by publishing screenshots of the harasser’s conversations with them through the study groups.
On April 5, 2022, the Appeal Public Prosecutor in the North, Judge Matilda Touma, charged Samer Mawlawi with a misdemeanor of sexual harassment of female high school students. It referred him under arrest to stand trial before the Single Criminal Judge in Tripoli, Ziad Dawalibi.
Judge Dawalibi set April 13 of the same year as the date for the first trial session.
It was expected that Mawlawi would undergo interrogation and listen to the survivors. But, social pressure led to the refusal of some female students to testify. This led to the release of the harassing professor, but human rights public opinion engaged again and the criminal was re-arrested.
At the time, the legal representative of the survivors, Khaled Merheb, indicated that “Public Prosecutor Touma charged Mawlawi based on the new sexual harassment law, describing it as a misdemeanor without specifying the legal article, noting that the complaint submitted by the survivors considered that his actions constituted a felony and not a misdemeanor.”
Despite what this case represented to us as a success story, albeit relative, at the level of disclosure, leading to a judicial claim against the perpetrator, we have not yet established a sustainable situation, in which the barrier of social stereotyping and unjust stigma is broken, and what happens are exceptions only.
The trial and social media campaigns did not achieve real justice for the survivors, as Mawlawi was sentenced to 20 days in prison only!
Therefore, the truth is that our reality confirms that sexual violence of multiple and varying forms and methods is still a crime that is rarely reported. Everything we hear about is only the tip of the iceberg.
Percentage of disclosure of sexual harassment and violence
In Lebanon and at the global level as well, we live in a typical reality confirming that the rate of disclosure of sexual harassment and violence to which girls are subjected is among the lowest rates compared to all other crimes.
In Canada, where sexual assault is a gendered crime, women experience abuse at a higher rate (37 incidents per 1,000 women) than men (5 per 1,000 men).
According to a 2014 census, only 10% of all sexual violence cases are reported to the police.
In more than half of the sexual assault incidents (52%), the perpetrator was a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor of the victim/survivor.
There are intertwined and various reasons that cause the low rate of non-disclosure of harassment, and then the failure to officially report these cases.
Among the most important of these reasons is the fear of stigma and shame, the fear of scandal and the physical retaliation of the offender, or the repetition of his act, or defamation of the victim/survivor through means of Social Media.
Added to this is the apprehension of the hostile treatment by the police, and the lack of knowledge of the means of reporting and the parties that should be reported to.
Perhaps the biggest fear is represented in the system of laws that do not severely punish the perpetrator, which allows him to underestimate the issue, and perhaps repeat his crime.
It must be recalled that sexual violence takes many forms, including; Harassment, rape, attempted rape, commercial sexual exploitation, forcing children and girls to work as sex workers, and depicting children and girls in a pornographic manner.
It includes sexual harassment, unwanted fondling and touching, sexual speech, innuendo and gestures.
Knowing that any sexual activity with those under the age of 18 or with persons lacking the legal capacity, should be treated as a sexual offense.
Reviews of the accounts of the survivors of this crime show that, regardless of its form and circumstances, failure to report it often leaves deep repercussions.
These effects include constant feelings of helplessness, fear and vulnerability, loss of trust in others, and apprehension of betrayal by friends and relatives.
Added to this the fear of the stigma, shame, embarrassment, scandal. and painful suffering associated with any future sexual practice or activity.
International research also agrees that the majority of girls do not disclose their exposure to sexual violence for long periods. Some of them never disclose what they have been through in their lives.
Usually, if they do disclose, it will be in a gradual manner according to the response of the party to whom the disclosure is made, which may be friends, colleagues, or relatives of the girl.
Girls are often silent for many reasons, most notably the psychological suffering resulting from their exposure to sexual violence. And try to avoid thinking about the attack, recalling its events, or talking about it.
The fear that no one will believe them, despite the seriousness of this type of violence and its consequences. As the fear of being blamed.
Girls may avoid speaking out of fear of punishment from the family, or the perpetrator’s revenge, which may take other forms of violence, ostracism and defamation. Such as publishing misleading news about the victim/survivor, or posting pictures of her on social media.
Added to these reasons, is guilt. The victim/survivor may feel that she was the cause of the assault she was subjected to, in cases where the sexual violence was committed by a person known to her or a member of her family.
This confusion and fear impairs the girls’ ability to understand that the perpetrator, not them, is responsible for the exploitation. Thus, they avoid disclosing the exploitation they were subjected to.
In addition, the fear and dread of the difficulty of the investigation procedures and the lack of confidence in the security authorities make the girls hesitant to file an official complaint with these authorities.
Here, the principle of validating the survivors assumes great importance at the level of ethical principles, which must govern the path of disclosure, leading to a strict and public legal accountability for the perpetrator.
But, the principle of validation must be accompanied by other paths that contribute to the early detection of cases of abuse in all its forms, through specialized social and psychological intervention, to accompany the victims/survivors in their crossing to salvation.
In addition, specialized intervention must be accompanied by a legal infrastructure, starting with criminal and judicial investigation fortified with a societal culture that respects rights, especially for the most marginalized groups.
Returning to Samer Mawlawi’s crime, social media played a positive role in exposing the perpetrator.
But the main question that we must ask is about the safety and sustainability of these social media platforms.
We need to think carefully about the consequences of replacing the legal and judicial infrastructures that respond to cases of sexual violence with media that may expose victims/survivors to risks that may be hidden from us.
Exposing the harasser should be the rule, but in return, we must respect the principle of confidentiality of the victims/survivors in reporting processes and their legal consequences.
The victims/survivors don’t pass safely to salvation except through the legal accountability of the aggressor, and with psychological and social accompaniment that provides a safety net protected by a social awareness that triumphs for the principle of rights and punishes the criminal.