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Don't send your picture without your parents' permission; tell your parents or another adult you trust if you receive e-mails with sexual or inappropriate content; don't give your real name or your age." This is some of the advice for safe surfing on the new Bahraini Web site, www.be-free.info.

The site, in Arabic and English, focuses on protecting the rights of children. A joint project of a local charity and the Bahraini Health Ministry, it seeks to help children in distress and those who are abused or handicapped.

A click on the link "I am an abused child" brings up the telephone and fax numbers of an assistance center that children can call for advice and counseling. No less important is the simple and direct advice given by center staff over the Internet to their young clients. "How can I be strong," for example, is a link through which a child is helped to understand the situation he or she is in. The professional staff at the site tell children to "believe in yourselves and in this way to respect yourselves. It's very easy to let yourself feel distressed, but by doing so you will lose your self-respect."

How can a distressed child be free? "Don't let yourself or others make your situation worse. Don't blame yourself. Look at your mistake and acknowledge it. Only by doing so can you train yourself to act differently. If you are criticized, think to yourself whether the criticism is justified, or if you are simply being persecuted."

The site's directors also suggest children adopt certain key phrases: "You can't be the most important person for everyone in the world; you can't do everything with the same perfection and skill; you can't do everything better than the next person."

Helping adults, too

The site's director, Sarur al-Karuni, told the Bahraini daily Akhbar Alkhaleej that the site gets about 530 hits every month from children and adults reporting abuse or seeking advice. Worried parents from other Arab countries, and even from Western countries, are also turning to the site.

This project, unique in the Middle East, deals with two groups: children up to the age of 18, and adults who were abused as children. The site's directors are expanding their activities beyond the Internet, as well. They are organizing workshops in schools in Bahrain, appearing on TV programs, opening parental guidance courses, and even sending counselors to other Arab countries to raise awareness on child abuse. The organizers are planning to establish a center for the rehabilitation of abused children to restore their self-confidence and their ability to function in society, and to counsel adults who were abused as children.

The project's counselors were trained by experts abroad, mainly in Great Britain. Al-Karuni says a group of Bahraini experts studied British child protection laws and met with British members of parliament, with the intention of trying to pass similar laws in Bahrain. The fact that the wife of the king of Bahrain heads the charity association involved with the site can't help but move legislation ahead in the kingdom.

The project began a few years ago after the abduction of Fatma Tawfiq Ibrahim, an 11-year-old Bahraini girl. Fatma and her sister Samira, 7, lived with their father and his girlfriend. Samira was removed from her father's house and transferred to the home of an older sister, and Fatma disappeared. The organization discovered that the father and his girlfriend had tortured the two girls regularly, burning them with cigarettes and abusing them psychologically. A major campaign to locate Fatma engendered the publicity that gave birth to the project.

Direct and practical

"Be Free" is not graphically rich. Little spike-haired smileys, a few flowers and a TV with a rabbit-ear antenna are practically all there is on the home page. But the site is direct and practical. For example, children are warned against abusers they might meet in the street: "Some people will ask your help, or offer you candy, and then they will tell you they are lonely and scared." Some advice for children who encounter such a situation is also offered: "Say no!" "Scream, Scream, Scream," "Take three steps backward and run like the wind," "Find an adult or a shopkeeper and ask him to call your parents, or an adult you trust."

On another page are a number of pictures of adults who look Western, above whom the question floats, "Who is suspicious?" The answer is not everyone who seems suspicious is suspicious, but rather that "it depends what they say to you or what they do." The site stresses that the abuser "looks like an ordinary person, acts like one in public places, and sometimes he even appears to have good qualities. The abuser can be the child's father or a family member."

Other parts of the site explain to children how to identify whether they are being abused and whom to talk to about it. It suggests that if the child finds himself or herself unable to talk about it, he or she should write what they feel.

The project's success engendered immediate competition from Islamic political parties. They noted that, according to the results of surveys taken by the organization, the free lifestyle in Bahrain encourages violence against children. The Islamic parties have already proposed a bill limiting children's attendance at movie theaters and Internet cafes and clubs, and they are demanding tighter government control over Internet content.

Meanwhile, the laws have not been passed and child-abuse prevention in Bahrain is a matter for voluntary organizations.