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Lama Younes: Beating the taboo of abuse

A children’s rights activist and the first Saudi female forensic psychologist and criminologist in the GCC, Lama Younes is the founder of Hissah Enrichment Center in Dubai. The center is unique in the region since it provides various services for education, training, and counseling to adults and youth to strengthen their personal and professional relationships. Younes focuses upon treating child abuse victims in the Gulf region where it is still considered to be a taboo issue and aims at implementing change through her work.
Attaining her Bachelor’s Degree from Effat University in Psychology with a minor in children’s counseling, she went on to pursue her Masters in Forensic Psychology and Criminology from Middlesex University in London. Specializing in Delinquent Psychopath and Terrorism for a Postgraduate degree from Harvard University, she achieved her PhD from the University of London.
As an advocate for children’s rights, she focused upon the differences between discipline, punishment, and child abuse in Saudi Arabia for her Ph.D. Other issues highlighted in her research were how to implement change in the region with an Islamic perspective in education, hospitals, and the law. Her research, which will be published soon, led her to be invited as a speaker at a panel discussion concerning child abuse at the Forensic Association in Washington D.C.
I spoke to her about raising awareness toward child abuse in Saudi Arabia, her chosen career path, and her new center in Dubai.
Why is child abuse still a sensitive issue in Saudi Arabia?
When I went to Saudi Arabia for a year to collect data for my dissertation, I conducted interviews because I wanted to understand if people can differentiate between discipline, punishment, and child abuse. I was surprised to find that most of them were victims of child abuse, which they did not choose to reveal. They chose to be anonymous besides a few participants who didn’t want their stories to be known. When I showed my research to the Ministry of Education and top organizations who can implement change in the country, the main reason they said people are not ready to talk about it is because they don’t differentiate the thin line between disciplining their children and abuse.
How can change concerning the issue of child abuse be implemented in Saudi Arabia?
Schools need to start a campaign and educators should realize the importance of extra curricular activities to teach children how to protect themselves. Based on my research, some government schools still implement corporal punishment. No one stops them, especially when it comes to religious activities such as Tahfeed Al Qur’an (recitation classes). Punishment, discipline, and abuse — they are not differentiating between these three. If you hit a child that creates strong marks, that is abuse. To them, it means I am keeping a mark to teach the child a lesson. But in my point of view as an expert, that is abuse. There are other ways to deal with children, sadly educators are not taught and are still following old techniques.
Has there been an increase in reporting child and domestic abuse after the law was introduced?
I am very happy about the law that has been implemented but something stronger has to happen. Focus needs to be put upon educating children since they need to know they have a right to complain. Parents are the offenders — we are telling the offenders that these are the laws but we’re not telling the victims. We need to educate the victims, the offenders, the witnesses, and society. We need to educate them all. There is a toll free number to report abuse cases that I have tried to get in touch with but they do not share their statistics with the public. It also takes time for them to gather the data.
Has the first anti-domestic violence campaign in Saudi Arabia led to talking about the issue of abuse?
The stories of abuse victims have touched a lot of lives, but I do not believe it’s enough. I believe people will still go on doing things in their own homes. Recently, there was a video that was circulated on Facebook that showed a child being beaten by a Qur’an teacher with an agal (Saudi headdress). There are many videos on social media that are being shared, which I also commit my time to with a group I have started on Facebook called Stop Child Abuse in Saudi Arabia. The fact that we can post information and have discussions is a positive start up since people are talking about how they feel. But it is easy to talk and much harder to act upon these discussions.
What influenced you to specialize in forensic psychology and criminology?
The passion I have for children’s rights, children as victims of crimes and children in general has simply opened my eyes. I decided to expand my horizons and feed my brain with the right knowledge that will take me to the place for the right cause.
Today I value the knowledge and education that I have gained. I speak with an open mind and have an understanding of religion, culture, tradition and environment locally and internationally.
Was your family supportive of your chosen career path since it is not a custom for Saudi women to practice in this field?
Choosing to major in Criminology and Forensic Psychology was a complete shock to my family when I first told them. No one understood what it was and I would have to explain it in simple terms or say CSI (Crime Scene Investigations Series) just to break the ice. They were concerned and asked me what my future plans were after achieving my degree. But they were always supportive and I am blessed to have a mother who has strong faith in me and sisters who believe in me regardless of our differences.
Can you describe what the core of your course was for the younger generation inclined to pursue this field?
One must really believe in this field. Allow the dark moments of your life be the light to your buried potentials. It is much more than learning at school and just attending lectures. I remember the hours of reading, the train rides to other countries, the months spent at shelters, and so much more. My core and required subjects wouldn’t have been completed without my hands on learning and international experience.
One must make sure the program they will be graduating from is recognized by the British Psychological Society or APA or any recognized body. Just to insure once you graduate you can get your license or membership from that body in order to work in the country you have graduated from or any other country without complications.
Have you done any work in this field? What was the biggest challenge that you faced?
I have been working in this field since 2007. My biggest challenge is when I try to implement Child Abuse Awareness. This is because I have to limit the knowledge I can share with Saudi society. I have started to take baby steps since I know they are not ready for a massive change. I find it challenging to possess this knowledge but not have the ability to share it or implement change immediately in Saudi society.
What inspired you to open the Hissah Enrichment Center in Dubai?
I have been working around the Middle East since 7 years and I realized that Dubai is the hub of all the activity and business. The process was much easier and convenient in terms of traveling for the people that I wanted to incorporate my business with who are based in the US and UK. Another advantage is that I am close to home. I would have loved to open my center in Saudi Arabia, but I thought it wouldn’t have worked in terms of whom I wanted to work with. I don’t have to issue them visas in Dubai since it is easily accessible for people to come and go. Development is faster and they are open to listen, I am not saying other GCC countries are not, but I had a choice between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Dubai is a more realistic place to start. Also, Saudis prefer coming here for therapy sessions.
Can this lead to starting up a center in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, I have been asked to speak to students in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We are being offered to go to other places in the GCC. I am very open to ideas.
What reactions did you receive from people when you opened your center?
Most of the people were very supportive and encouraging toward what I’m doing. I think it’s because I’m a Saudi woman and I speak Arabic, which is a necessity in this region. I have not received any negative reactions, everyone from Saudi Arabia as well as expatriates were very supportive and believed that we need these services.
Lastly, what message do you want to give to people in Saudi Arabia to actively make a change in society?
As a Saudi woman who has traveled around the world to seek education, I worked in many places — Europe, America, and the Middle East. As a counselor, I have one thing to say: it is OK to ask for help. Seek for help, it’s not wrong to go out and reach for help when you need it. I believe that people should prevent something before it happens. Talking to your friends can be good but sometimes you need to ask for professional help. I believe it’s really important to not make fast judgments. If you’re going through a problem, expand your horizons. Seek answers before jumping to a conclusion. It’s okay to go through therapy, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy and this misconception is still the main issue. When it comes to child abuse, my advice is to take baby steps — start with your home and society will change. I believe awareness starts from the heart, then from your home, in your family, and if you’re a good role model in your neighborhood — others will follow.

Email: [email protected]

A children’s rights activist and the first Saudi female forensic psychologist and criminologist in the GCC, Lama Younes is the founder of Hissah Enrichment Center in Dubai. The center is unique in the region since it provides various services for education, training, and counseling to adults and youth to strengthen their personal and professional relationships. Younes focuses upon treating child abuse victims in the Gulf region where it is still considered to be a taboo issue and aims at implementing change through her work.
Attaining her Bachelor’s Degree from Effat University in Psychology with a minor in children’s counseling, she went on to pursue her Masters in Forensic Psychology and Criminology from Middlesex University in London. Specializing in Delinquent Psychopath and Terrorism for a Postgraduate degree from Harvard University, she achieved her PhD from the University of London.
As an advocate for children’s rights, she focused upon the differences between discipline, punishment, and child abuse in Saudi Arabia for her Ph.D. Other issues highlighted in her research were how to implement change in the region with an Islamic perspective in education, hospitals, and the law. Her research, which will be published soon, led her to be invited as a speaker at a panel discussion concerning child abuse at the Forensic Association in Washington D.C.
I spoke to her about raising awareness toward child abuse in Saudi Arabia, her chosen career path, and her new center in Dubai.
Why is child abuse still a sensitive issue in Saudi Arabia?
When I went to Saudi Arabia for a year to collect data for my dissertation, I conducted interviews because I wanted to understand if people can differentiate between discipline, punishment, and child abuse. I was surprised to find that most of them were victims of child abuse, which they did not choose to reveal. They chose to be anonymous besides a few participants who didn’t want their stories to be known. When I showed my research to the Ministry of Education and top organizations who can implement change in the country, the main reason they said people are not ready to talk about it is because they don’t differentiate the thin line between disciplining their children and abuse.
How can change concerning the issue of child abuse be implemented in Saudi Arabia?
Schools need to start a campaign and educators should realize the importance of extra curricular activities to teach children how to protect themselves. Based on my research, some government schools still implement corporal punishment. No one stops them, especially when it comes to religious activities such as Tahfeed Al Qur’an (recitation classes). Punishment, discipline, and abuse — they are not differentiating between these three. If you hit a child that creates strong marks, that is abuse. To them, it means I am keeping a mark to teach the child a lesson. But in my point of view as an expert, that is abuse. There are other ways to deal with children, sadly educators are not taught and are still following old techniques.
Has there been an increase in reporting child and domestic abuse after the law was introduced?
I am very happy about the law that has been implemented but something stronger has to happen. Focus needs to be put upon educating children since they need to know they have a right to complain. Parents are the offenders — we are telling the offenders that these are the laws but we’re not telling the victims. We need to educate the victims, the offenders, the witnesses, and society. We need to educate them all. There is a toll free number to report abuse cases that I have tried to get in touch with but they do not share their statistics with the public. It also takes time for them to gather the data.
Has the first anti-domestic violence campaign in Saudi Arabia led to talking about the issue of abuse?
The stories of abuse victims have touched a lot of lives, but I do not believe it’s enough. I believe people will still go on doing things in their own homes. Recently, there was a video that was circulated on Facebook that showed a child being beaten by a Qur’an teacher with an agal (Saudi headdress). There are many videos on social media that are being shared, which I also commit my time to with a group I have started on Facebook called Stop Child Abuse in Saudi Arabia. The fact that we can post information and have discussions is a positive start up since people are talking about how they feel. But it is easy to talk and much harder to act upon these discussions.
What influenced you to specialize in forensic psychology and criminology?
The passion I have for children’s rights, children as victims of crimes and children in general has simply opened my eyes. I decided to expand my horizons and feed my brain with the right knowledge that will take me to the place for the right cause.
Today I value the knowledge and education that I have gained. I speak with an open mind and have an understanding of religion, culture, tradition and environment locally and internationally.
Was your family supportive of your chosen career path since it is not a custom for Saudi women to practice in this field?
Choosing to major in Criminology and Forensic Psychology was a complete shock to my family when I first told them. No one understood what it was and I would have to explain it in simple terms or say CSI (Crime Scene Investigations Series) just to break the ice. They were concerned and asked me what my future plans were after achieving my degree. But they were always supportive and I am blessed to have a mother who has strong faith in me and sisters who believe in me regardless of our differences.
Can you describe what the core of your course was for the younger generation inclined to pursue this field?
One must really believe in this field. Allow the dark moments of your life be the light to your buried potentials. It is much more than learning at school and just attending lectures. I remember the hours of reading, the train rides to other countries, the months spent at shelters, and so much more. My core and required subjects wouldn’t have been completed without my hands on learning and international experience.
One must make sure the program they will be graduating from is recognized by the British Psychological Society or APA or any recognized body. Just to insure once you graduate you can get your license or membership from that body in order to work in the country you have graduated from or any other country without complications.
Have you done any work in this field? What was the biggest challenge that you faced?
I have been working in this field since 2007. My biggest challenge is when I try to implement Child Abuse Awareness. This is because I have to limit the knowledge I can share with Saudi society. I have started to take baby steps since I know they are not ready for a massive change. I find it challenging to possess this knowledge but not have the ability to share it or implement change immediately in Saudi society.
What inspired you to open the Hissah Enrichment Center in Dubai?
I have been working around the Middle East since 7 years and I realized that Dubai is the hub of all the activity and business. The process was much easier and convenient in terms of traveling for the people that I wanted to incorporate my business with who are based in the US and UK. Another advantage is that I am close to home. I would have loved to open my center in Saudi Arabia, but I thought it wouldn’t have worked in terms of whom I wanted to work with. I don’t have to issue them visas in Dubai since it is easily accessible for people to come and go. Development is faster and they are open to listen, I am not saying other GCC countries are not, but I had a choice between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Dubai is a more realistic place to start. Also, Saudis prefer coming here for therapy sessions.
Can this lead to starting up a center in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, I have been asked to speak to students in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We are being offered to go to other places in the GCC. I am very open to ideas.
What reactions did you receive from people when you opened your center?
Most of the people were very supportive and encouraging toward what I’m doing. I think it’s because I’m a Saudi woman and I speak Arabic, which is a necessity in this region. I have not received any negative reactions, everyone from Saudi Arabia as well as expatriates were very supportive and believed that we need these services.
Lastly, what message do you want to give to people in Saudi Arabia to actively make a change in society?
As a Saudi woman who has traveled around the world to seek education, I worked in many places — Europe, America, and the Middle East. As a counselor, I have one thing to say: it is OK to ask for help. Seek for help, it’s not wrong to go out and reach for help when you need it. I believe that people should prevent something before it happens. Talking to your friends can be good but sometimes you need to ask for professional help. I believe it’s really important to not make fast judgments. If you’re going through a problem, expand your horizons. Seek answers before jumping to a conclusion. It’s okay to go through therapy, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy and this misconception is still the main issue. When it comes to child abuse, my advice is to take baby steps — start with your home and society will change. I believe awareness starts from the heart, then from your home, in your family, and if you’re a good role model in your neighborhood — others will follow.

Email: [email protected]

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