“This is my body; no one has the right to touch it.”
“I will say no, and nothing will frighten me.”
Such are the dicta circulated by the Himaya team. Himaya translates into English as ‘protection’, and the name has been adopted by a group of young volunteers whose aim is to protect children from sexual harassment or abuse through a specialised programme of raising awareness among children.
The volunteers are trained to interact with children and, without mentioning the word ‘harassment’—which could be misconstrued by some children and feared by others—they try to engage children’s attention through illustrations, games and songs.
Prevention better than cure
Himaya was masterminded and founded in 2013 by Iman Ezzat, who has worked with thousands of children to raise their awareness of sexual harassment. She set out with five volunteers, and in the course of a year the team swelled to some 50 across much of Egypt.
They offer awareness in schools, orphanages and nursery schools, as well as Islamic, Christian and governmental childhood centres. They have offered advice to some 15.000 children, including those who are disabled and homeless. They have also advised more than 7,000 parents and 5,000 teachers on how to handle the problem of child sexual abuse.
The Himaya programme operates in the governorates of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Ismailiya, Sharqiya, Suez, Fayoum, Minya, Assiut. and Sohag.
In cooperation with the associations For a Better Life; the Bright Future Foundation (BFF); and Caritas Egypt, the campaign has also offered awareness to more than 600 children with special needs.
“Say no and scream”
A few years ago Ms Ezzat was studying for a diploma on child sexual abuse, its detrimental effect on children, and how it violated their innocence. “I realised then that this was an escalating problem in the community, and many parents preferred not to talk about it, while others were too conservative to discuss it with their children,” she says.
“Through a consultation programme we found out that many children had been abused by their relatives. The children kept it secret, afraid to say anything.
“It occurred to me that we were working on treating the damaged psyches of abused children, but that instead we should have worked on making them aware of how to protect themselves. The idea emerged of a complete awareness programme that, through songs and illustrations that simplified the facts, encouraged children to say ‘No’ and to scream.”
Such awareness programmes are not new to the international community; they exist in many other countries, including the United States and Canada where social workers have been active in that field since as far back as the mid-20th century. Active programmes were implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. But such programmes are still relatively new to Egypt and depend primarily on private or volunteer efforts.
“Our programme has already found success,” Ms Ezza says. “It isn’t only an awareness programme; it mainly aims at educating children to defend themselves, and their bodies.”
One mother who is grateful to Himaya says the advice given to her daughter gave her the courage to scream when a swimming coach attempted to harass her. Another mother said she was proud of Himaya because it helped children both to express and defend themselves.
Children addressing children
Lydia al-Wahsh, a member of the Himaya team, said she joined the team after encountering children who had been traumatised by sexual abuse and seeing the difficulty in treating their traumas.
“Prevention is better than cure,” she says, especially when the cure is so difficult to achieve.
“Our team includes both male and female members of all ages,” she says. “We have even enlisted our children to join us in the good work. They take part in the songs and operettas addressing the issue, and their presence in the programme as youngsters fosters trust and credibility among the targeted children.
Madonna Nabil, another member of the team, says the problem lies in the secrecy and fear felt by children exposed to harassment or sexual assault. “This gives a chance for the harasser to go on unchecked, and at the same time leaves deep scars on the child’s psychology.
“When these children grow up they are most likely to have unbalanced characters on the sexual level. Many adults who have problems on that score had been subjected to abuse in childhood, which unfortunately is difficult to tackle once they are adults.
“The Himaya programme has a significant impact on the children and their ability to understand sexual concepts or attitudes that many parents may be too timid to tackle.”
Parents, too, should do something
Among the children who have attended the awareness programme are seven-year-old Maria Ezzat and Jessica Ihab, 10, who both stressed that they had learnt how to defend themselves from ‘bad’ touches and to scream for help if necessary.
Yusry Abdel-Mohsen, professor of psychology at Cairo University, says that, among children exposed to abuse, response varies from one child to another according to the child’s constitution and the family’s support. Those children always end up shocked, unstable, fearful, complaining of lack of sleep, nightmares, loss of appetite and become more often than not distracted and introverted.
“Therapy is necessary for any child subjected to sexual abuse,” Dr Mohsen says. “But we also demand harsher penalties against harassment so that no one would even think of committing such a crime against children.”
However he says parents should also play their part. “In parallel to the role played in awareness by educational and religious institutions, parents have a responsibility to guide their children and create a strong bond with them.”
27 May 2015