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Sexual violence, especially in schools, remains a delicate and often concealed issue. What initiatives have been implemented in Lebanon to promote awareness, prevention, and intervention against this scourge?

Who among us hasn’t heard rumors about children falling victim to sexual abuse by adults in Lebanese schools? If these cases of abuse, often proven, aren’t widely publicized, it’s mainly to preserve the reputation of the educational institution and protect the victims.

Some instances have still been exposed by the media. We can mention the case of the young teacher who, in 2012, committed acts of pedophilia in one of the private schools in Mount Lebanon. At the time, his victims were aged 8 and 9. With the help of social media, a public school teacher in North Lebanon was denounced in 2021 by some young girls for harassment and inappropriate behavior.

Other cases are constantly reported to the relevant authorities without much media attention. However, it’s important to note that abuse isn’t only committed in schools; children can also fall victim to sexual violence within their families.

While these cases are mostly handled discreetly, primarily to protect the victims, they highlight the importance of proactive work to prevent them and raise awareness among various stakeholders about the signs that should alert them and the tools available for intervention. It’s crucial to teach children to protect themselves from any form of violence they might face from adults, particularly in the school environment where they spend most of their time.

What are the strategies for raising awareness, prevention, and intervention implemented in Lebanon, where challenges abound and where acceptance of violence isn’t necessarily the same for everyone, especially considering that sexual abuse remains a taboo subject for many?

A National Policy

It’s worth mentioning that Lebanon started taking this issue seriously in 2010 through local NGOs before the authorities also got involved. The local strategy operates at two levels: official, through the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the Internal Security Forces, and social, through NGOs focusing on child protection.

This concerted effort is beginning to yield results, especially as approaches have become more standardized over the years. Society is gradually aligning with the norms of behavior and common attitudes advocated by various stakeholders, although there’s still much work to be done. “The outcome is relatively positive, in the sense that taboos are gradually being broken, giving victims more courage to speak up. Confidentiality rules reassure them,” explains Amina Hamade, coordinator of the prevention program at Himaya, an NGO fighting child abuse.

On May 11, 2018, the Ministry of Education launched the national policy for the protection of students in schools with the support of UNICEF.

“The methodology implemented in schools relies on four steps: observation, characterization, corresponding measures, and appropriate follow-up,” explains Hilda Khoury, director of the department of pedagogical and school counseling at the ministry.

The official strategy was developed by the department operating under the General Directorate of Education within the ministry. Also involved in the project were the Center for Educational Research and Development (CRDP), the Lebanese University, and the Lebanese School of Social Formation at Université Saint-Joseph.

The protocol for identifying and addressing cases of violence includes standardized referral processes and branches into two types of measures: internal within the Ministry of Education and external, involving the intervention of other agencies outside the ministry.

In case of suspected harassment by an adult against a student at school, administrative investigations are immediately conducted, followed, if necessary, by referral to the judicial authorities.

“Although these cases aren’t publicized, they’re treated with strict confidentiality and the utmost seriousness, not to preserve the institution’s reputation, but rather to protect the integrity of those involved,” says Khoury.

For example, a case of sexual violence perpetrated by a family member against a student was identified in a school. “Our department went to the school to meet with the affected student and provide appropriate psychosocial support,” she says. “At the same time, the case was reported to the Ministry of Justice to ensure the protection of the minor and initiate a thorough investigation into the incident,” she explains. “The educational counselor intensified visits to the school until the competent external services took over.”

The Ministry of Justice is a crucial partner in this process, as Law 422, promulgated in June 2002, defines the legal framework for the protection of minors at risk. It provides for judicial and social procedural measures to protect children, up to the age of 18, from any type of aggression.

A guide has been developed by the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Minors, with technical assistance from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), for any adult in contact with children, especially educational staff. The aim of this document is to present intervention strategies for children who are victims of criminal offenses and to familiarize the general public with judicial protection procedures.

The Internal Security Forces, Always Vigilant

Another awareness-raising mission in Lebanese schools against abuse towards students of all ages is also carried out by the ISF and is not a recent initiative.

“It started more than ten years ago, but over time, an increasing number of schools have been requesting interventions from the Cybercrime Bureau*,” explains an informed ISF source to This Is Beirut.

“Our teams, composed of specialized officers, conduct weekly interventions in schools, focusing mainly on cybersecurity, as children are increasingly exposed to social media at a younger age,” says the same source, explaining why a growing number of schools are requesting the Cybercrime Bureau for interventions on this phenomenon and the associated risks.

A booklet on cyber threat awareness is also available in three languages from the official ISF website. This guide aims “to raise awareness among all members of society about the most important cyber threats and crimes, and to strengthen the protection and privacy” of internet users. This document includes “preventive measures and good practices to follow.”

Individual and Organizational Initiatives

Long before the development of the national policy for the protection of schoolchildren, some individuals had already been working in this field alongside NGOs, starting in 2010.

Roula Lebbos, a social worker by profession, a consultant, and a juvenile protection trainer, carried out pioneering work in this regard. Having developed a child protection policy, she worked on its implementation in about ten Lebanese schools from 2010 to 2017.

The overall goal of any child protection policy, as explained by Lebbos, is to establish a common language regarding violence, its nature, and its typology, in order to disseminate a culture of non-violence.

“Violence in adults can be unintentional,” Lebbos continues; “it can stem from certain behaviors that aren’t perceived as violent by society, especially in the presence of stereotypes associated with the teaching profession or the educational system in general.”

For Lebbos, the foundation of this approach is familiarity with Law 422 on child protection in Lebanon, which allows the child, school personnel, and parents to know their rights and duties. Therefore, she believes that any successful child protection approach should combine psychosocial and legal aspects.

On the NGO side, This is Beirut spoke with Kafa and Himaya, which have been working on this issue since 2009–2010.

The approach developed by Roula Lebbos and those practiced by these NGOs converge in their holistic nature. Interventions in schools include the development of a child protection charter, alongside training sessions for learners, school staff (administrative and teaching), and parents.

Three main axes are addressed: types of violence (physical, psychological, and sexual, in addition to neglect); attitudes and behaviors to adopt; and the legal aspect.

The institution should also commit to updating the adopted strategy, which is of paramount importance to Lebbos. “The goal is to integrate new factors that should be taken into consideration and to train new personnel joining the institution,” she emphasizes.

These interventions also aim to create a child protection unit within the school or any other reference structure that includes qualified specialized personnel, also referred to as “security agents.” These individuals are authorized to detect, report, refer, and follow up on cases of student victims of violence.

“Each school decides on the executive measures to adopt to ensure the implementation of the protection charter,” explains Maria Semaan, head of the child protection unit at Kafa. “Some institutions appoint protection agents, others establish a complaints office or train specialized personnel already working, such as social workers or psychologists.”

As part of the prevention program, Himaya offers “a peer education approach, which is particularly effective,” Hamade says. “Among the children who attended the training sessions, groups are selected to organize, in turn, awareness and education activities on protection against violence, addressed to children of their age, such as skits, videos, or posters,” she explains.

Impact on Society?

The efforts made over the years have fortunately made a difference in the lives of thousands of children in Lebanon.

In this regard, Hamade notes that “an increasing number of cases, especially online harassment, are reported through the ISF assistance hotline.”

“The demand from private schools is also on the rise, particularly in the areas of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, but also in Baalbeck, where an increasing number of private sector establishments are turning to Himaya to implement an awareness and prevention program,” she continues.

However, some institutions, where topics like harassment or sexual assaults are taboo, remain resistant, Semaan deplores, while others, Hamade notes, “go as far as denying cases reported to the NGO through other channels.”

Nevertheless, “the impact of education on a culture of non-violent communication isn’t always visible or measurable by numbers,” as highlighted by Rebecca Wakim, a graduate in social work specializing in social animation.

“After three to five awareness sessions in schools, a spectacular impact occurs when students’ voices are heard. Cases of abuse come to light, and children feel safe to talk about them and start the process of seeking help,” she says, emphasizing “the snowball effect of this phenomenon: when one child breaks the barrier of fear, others are encouraged.”

* The ISF’s Cybercrime Bureau registers complaints through its assistance hotline (01/293293) and its online reporting service, which can be accessed on the ISF’s official website.