JEDDAH: Maha Al-Muneef, founder and executive director of the National Family Safety Program (NFSP), was recently recognized in Forbes magazine as a woman changing the world, due to her contribution to public policy. She is a passionate advocate against child abuse, domestic violence and for women empowerment. Afshan Aziz of Arab News talked with Al-Muneef about the program and the challenges in combating abuse in Saudi Arabia.
What role do you play in addressing and preventing child abuse?
The mission of the National Family Safety Program (NFSP), a semi-governmental organization based in Riyadh, is to establish a safe, collaborative, and cooperative environment that resists domestic violence and child maltreatment, respecting the rights of individuals – especially those who are most vulnerable, such as women, children, the elderly and people with special needs.
In our daily work in the program, we evaluate children on child maltreatment, physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect by focusing on the family as a unit. We also work on prevention programs throughout the Kingdom in addition to counseling and referral services to children and their families. NFSP raises the level of awareness among the individuals and institutions about the cost and outcome of domestic violence and child abuse and their negative effects on society in the long term. My team and I prepare future strategies and national action plans to end domestic violence and child abuse based on scientific evidence obtained from social surveys and statistical studies conducted in all regions of the Kingdom.
How does the NSFP try to help prevent child abuse?
The NFSP helps children below 18 specifically through the Saudi Child Helpline (SCHL) toll free number 116111 that serves children, parents and care providers through telephone consultations on issues related to violence and abuse, psychological and mental health, family relations, school problems, sexual problems, child labor, child substance abuse and neglect.
The SCHL provides referrals to relevant national entities. Women also receive several awareness programs on empowerment and domestic violence that are provided by well-trained professionals (social workers and psychologists) through lectures, workshops and group discussions.
We offer specialized training services to professionals in different fields such as courses on domestic violence and child abuse for health care providers, social workers, counselors, lawyers, criminal investigators, and law enforcement personnel.
Has the NFSP been effective at preventing abuse?
The NFSP has had successes in tackling domestic violence since its establishment in 2005. The problem is being addressed medically, socially, and legally.
However, according to statistics the NFSP collected, the rates of child abuse and domestic violence within the Kingdom have multiplied between 2005 and 2012. This does not necessarily indicate an increase in abuse or maltreatment attempts. It is probably an indication of increased awareness to report these injustices or abuse cases. Women are more aware of their rights and they are breaking the silence. Professionals are recognizing abuse and report it to official agencies more effectively.
The number of hospital-based Child Protection Centers (CPC) in Saudi Arabia has increased from only four centers in 2009 to 41 in 2012, which contributed to a rise in the number of reported cases. So, the NFSP have been successful in creating awareness and preventing abuse in the Kingdom.
What challenges does the program face?
We are facing multiple challenges at family level, the community level, and the country at large. Family violence is considered a taboo topic. Most people and especially victims of abuse are not willing to talk about it, believing that it is private to each family and should not to be shared with others. There is also the perception that corporal punishment is considered parenting or disciplining rather than abuse.
At a community level, lack of awareness on parenting, women’s and children’s rights is a major challenge. It will take a while to change the perceptions regarding violence, rights and relationships. Furthermore, the access and the availability of community services for the victims are adding on the challenges, given the very large geographic area of the Kingdom.
At the country level, there are no specific laws governing children safety and family protection in the Kingdom. However, last week the Cabinet approved the child protection act and I expect an improvement in this regards. The new laws and legislations will protect the victim and punish the perpetrators more effectively.
The lack of data on incidents, risk factors, and consequences due to the limited number of studies pertaining to abuse and violence in Saudi Arabia is also considered a major challenge to the development of solutions or programs based on evidence.
There is a duplication of roles with other organizations that provide similar services and poor collaboration between these agencies. There is confusion regarding the specific services that each agency is providing.
How does the NFSP help rescue individuals from abusive situations?
The NFSP guides the victims to get support through counseling and immediate referrals to specialized channels as well as through the follow-up programs that are provided in major hospitals and through the Saudi Child Helpline.
We focus on prevention rather than protection. The Ministry of Social Affairs, police, and hospitals provide immediate intervention. Our aim is to empower the governmental organizations and NGO’s to serve people by advocating best practices, initiating national projects, building capacities and providing human and technical resources. Therefore, we focus on partnerships and collaboration with all governmental agencies.
As an adviser to the Shoura Council, would you believe more laws are required to prevent child abuse?
The Shoura council has drafted and approved a specific law addressing physical and sexual abuse, the Protection from Violence and Abuse Act. This now awaits introduction by the ministerial cabinet. This law will help all adults and children who are victims of abuse. There are many regulations in this act that address all aspects of the problem from definition to specific and social service regulations.