Talking to: Mohammed Mansour, 49, lives in Galilee town of Mash’had; psychologist, volunteer in Gaza with Physicians for Human Rights. Where: A Jaffa café. When: Sunday, 8 A.M.
For more than a decade you’ve been making frequent visits to the Gaza Strip, as a volunteer who provides psychological assistance.
I’m an expert in trauma treatment, and more specifically of children who have undergone sexual assault or who display abusive sexual behavior. As part of the humanitarian assistance given, I treat children and train professionals to provide trauma therapy. I go in and out of Gaza, under the auspices of the Physicians for Human Rights nonprofit, every two to three months. In the 1990s I even lived there for half a year while I was doing a research study.
So you’re well acquainted with pre-embargo Gaza, too.
And I understand that it’s your feeling, from your last visit, about a month ago, that something has changed. You discern a new tendency.
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.
That silence, by members of the profession, is the second betrayal.
And the bottom line is that children who have suffered sexual abuse have nowhere to turn to, no one to talk to.
Do you know the rate of sexual abuse of children in Gaza?
No. There is no systematic research. But children who live in conditions of neglect are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Poverty and trauma go hand in hand.
I once met a therapist who works with women in prostitution. She told me that the assailants know whom to choose. They know which girl has no one waiting for her at home.
That’s right. The assailants are adept at identifying whom they can abuse, and from this point of view the children of Gaza are indeed vulnerable. Almost every family has 14 or 15 children, and they live in terrible poverty. Most people don’t work, and those who do, earn pennies – the average salary is 1,000 shekels a month [$285]. Mentally and physically, parents are simply not capable of supporting their children. They are immersed in their own depression, their own trauma. And most of the Gaza’s residents are suffering from depression and trauma, they can’t provide their children with even the most basic needs.
Definitely. I’ve seen the starvation. I visit meager, empty homes. The refrigerator is off even during the hours when they have electric power, because there’s nothing in it. The children tell me that they eat once a day; some eat once every two days. A neurologist who works with us, Rafik Masalha, did a study on nutrition. A child in the Gaza Strip eats meat an average of once a month and chicken maybe once a week, and we’re talking about one chicken for a family of 15 children.
Palestinian law stipulates the death penalty for assaulting minors. There have been precedents: People have been executed.
The death penalty stipulated in the law applies to abuse outside the family. In cases of intra-family abuse, it’s up to the victim to prove it. No child will dare to talk about abuse like that. A child of 6 whose mother abuses him sexually, or a girl who is abused by her father and her brothers, will not inform on them – especially as many children who are sexually abused don’t know that they are undergoing abuse. They don’t know that this is what’s happening to them. They don’t know and they don’t even invest energy in an attempt to understand what it is.
What about attacks by children against other children?
For children who endure sexual abuse, there is an element in the abuse that is pleasurable. Children who endure protracted sexual abuse, without anyone working with them on their trauma, deny and repress the pain involved, and focus on the pleasurable part. A child like that is prone to even greater harm, and prone to harm other children.
The victim becomes the assailant.
A child who is abused sexually is under the total domination of the abuser, whose main occupation is how to dominate. Abusing other children is the ultimate way to restore control to himself.