Working with children, parents, teachers, and social workers, Laila Risgallah is building a society that rejects sexual abuse by criminalizing it in the minds of Egyptians and establishing preventative measures for children.
Laila Risgallah createdthe first structured initiative in Egypt that focuses on raising awareness about the sexual abuse of children (ages 4-16), detecting the problem, and helping children cope with the consequences. Working in schools, nurseries, and orphanages with teachers, students and social workers, Laila is tackling sexual abuse with preventative measures as opposed to just rehabilitation after the abuse.She is presenting key players with the information and tools they need to detect and treat abuse. Laila has started unravelling and breaking apart the multiple layers of problems that sexually abused children face to prevent further abuse and raise a generation that understands sexual abuse as a crime.
A topic that has been historically silenced and often seen as the victim’s fault, Laila uses the media to flood Egypt with knowledge about sexual abuse in order to criminalize it in the minds of all Egyptians. Targeting the public, the survivor, and the educational system, Laila breaks the silence of sexual abuse and informs people about the reality and commonplace of the issue as well as its negative short and long-term consequences on children and society at large.Her methodology is the first to raise awareness of the issue directly and openly among children and adults. Further, her work is creating new systems for certifying and monitoring sexual abuse in schools.
Laila’s aggressive spread strategy couples educational tools with media outreach to targetall sectors of Egyptian society and ultimately change behaviors and attitudes towards sexual abuse.By shedding light on this taboo subject in an informed manner, she is triggering policy change within the education system in theteaching and social work professions.
Through her organization, Not Guilty for Family Development, Laila has impacted thousands of children, teachers, and social workers. Using a model that is easily replicated, she is spreading her work throughout the country.
A study done by the UN found that approximately 1 out of every 4 females and 1 out of every 6 males are sexually abused before the age of 18. Sexual abuse during childhood has severe, negative, and long-term effects. Victims face psychological problems that will affect their future and how they interact with society. Some of the consequences that a victim may experience include low self-esteem, poor school performance and job productivity, feelings of guilt and shame that paralyze them from becoming active in society, self-hatred and self-mutilation, sex addictions, and porn addictions. Thirty percent of sexually abused children perpetuate the cycle of violence and become abusers themselves. Sexual abuse often leads to mental problems that can show up later in life.
The problem of sexual abuse has never been tackled in a structured and focused manner due to the culture of shame towards the subject in Egypt. There is a clandestine acceptance of sexual abuse and little knowledge of its prevalence and consequences. People are either ashamed to speak about it and deny its existence, or they are misinformed and unaware that it is a problem in the first place.
The media coverage of sexual abuse in Egypt has been scarce and mostly inaccurate, driven by misconceptions about the issue and a non-scientific understanding of the problem. It is a taboo subject and often difficult to talk about, so most find it easier to ignore the problem than to expose it.
Consequently, minimal efforts have been made to address the problem in Egypt. Several organizations are tackling women’s issues that deal with harassment and abuse, but there are not efforts being made to holistically address the problem of sexual abuse in children. Children, parents, and teachers are not given any information about sexual abuse—how to detect it nor how to deal with it. Victims do not feel they have a safe way to report abuse or receive help if they have been abused in the past.
Furthermore, there is no reporting mechanism in place for victims to report incidents of abuse. Only 10% of cases are reported largely due to the fact that 87% of sexual abusers are close family members. The victim and his/her family are highly discouraged from reporting the incident in fear of bringing shame to the family and the abused person, while possibly causing a major family drift or losing the main bread-winner of the family. Even though there is a law against sexual abuse (which includes rape), it is not widely enforced. People do not report cases so they are not documented. Moreover, both the police and the judiciary systems tend to blame the victim rather than offer support and help, reflecting the same bias as society.
In order tospread awareness about the prevalence of sexual abuse in Egyptian society, Laila developed a structured strategy by which to address key stakeholders involved through education and media outreach. Through her organization, Not Guilty for Family Development, she has created various tools to educate and train children, parents, teachers, and social workers in addition to spreading knowledge about the topic in the media.There are currently five full-time staff members in addition to Laila, who also works full-time for her CSO: a training director, a training coordinator, a website and social media manager and a secretary, and an administrative/finance manager. To sustain her program, Laila uses revenue from her book sales as well as from training fees.
Her methodology focuses on defining what sexual abuse is, discussing why it is a crime, and highlighting its consequences.First, Laila developed a three-pronged curriculum: one tailored for children, another for parents, and a third for social workers and teachers. The curriculum for children includes books and training that address what sexual abuse is and what to do when you feel you are being abused. There are different curriculums according to gender and age group (4-9, 9-12, and 12-16 years old). The curricula for parents, teachers and social workers address the topics of how to detect if a child is being abused, how to report it, how to stop the abuse, and how to counsel the child.
As part of the curriculum, Laila spreads knowledge about the issues and consequences of sexual abuse. For example, once children learn that sexual abuse is wrong and unacceptable, they are taught how to reject and report it, while also learning that it is not their fault. Parents are adequately informed about how to watch for signs of sexual abuse and what to do if they detect that their child is being abused. Laila also works with teachers to help them spot signs of sexual abuse. The social workers in the schools are equipped with the proper skills and adequate training needed to handle cases of sexual abuse. Laila uses hands-on learning approaches and role-play as well as real case studies as part of her curriculum.
The curriculum is shared with schools, nurseries, and orphanages, using carefully selected and trained trainers to implement the curriculum. She currently has over 25 volunteer trainers and in just the past 2 years, these trainers have reached out to over 4,000 children, parents, teachers, and social workers in Cairo, Alexandria (Northern Coast), El Minya (Upper Egypt), and even outside of Egypt in Jordan. In order to implement her curriculum in a new school, Laila builds a relationship with the school’s administrators and educates them first on the sexual abuse problem. As a result of Laila’s pioneering role in starting a sexual abuse training curriculum in Egypt, the Ministry of Social Affairs reached out to Laila in the end of 2012 and requested to use her training curriculum for all social workers beginning January 2013.
In addition to education, Lailaaddresses the general public by using media to educate the Egyptian population, particularly raising awareness for youthabout issues related to sexual abuse. In 2007, Lailadeveloped a TV program for youth called “Han3isha Sa7” (Arabic for “We Will Live Our Lives as we Should”). Her program discussestabooissues, that the community does not have the courage to address,with youth and parents such as sex before marriage, masturbation, pornography, and peer pressure.
In addition to one TV program that Laila has already aired and is still running as a precursor, she has finished writing the episodes and filming another program solely dedicated to sexual abuse. The second program still to be aired is called “Not Guilty” mainstreamingher main point about sexual abuse.She has finished writing and filming 23 episodes of her new program, with a famous Egyptian filmmaker so as to increase viewership. This program will increase public awareness of the topic as well as help publicize her work so that she can implement her curriculum in more schools.
Furthermore, Laila is also using the media to tackle the high level of stigma and guilt associated with victims of sexual abuse. She realizes that opening the topic to the public and engaging them in discussions will help spread awareness so that behavior and policies can be changed. Laila will be connecting her TV program with her CSO office, which she has turned into a resource center for families who would like to receive support or advice regarding sexual abuse.
Laila’s next steps include sealing agreements with the Ministry of Education to integrate the curriculumshe is already using in private schools and other institutions to reach the public school system, while making it a requirement in all of Egypt’s primaryschools for children, teachers, and school administers to receive her training. She has already reached an agreement with the Deputy Minister of Education to carry out her curriculum in all of Cairo’s public schools. Additionally, Laila is in the process of developing a “Safe School Accreditation Program,” which will be implemented on a national level with the help of the Ministry of Education. The program will extend her training to at least three teachers from every school to act as ambassadors. These selected teachers will ensure that the school is safe by monitoring the children and working with other teachers to detect child abuse in the students. In order to reach Egypt’s next generation of teachers, she has secured a grant and sealed agreements with the College of Teachers to train 500 students who are studying to become teachers.
Finally, Laila’s long-term plans consist ofdeveloping a system by which people can report incidents of sexual abuse. Until the ministry adopts Laila’s school accreditation program, she plans to reach people through mosques, churches (training Sunday schools teachers), and youth centres. Other plans include training doctors to detect sexually abused children and patients.
After reaching national impact, Laila plans to expand her work beyond Egypt. She has already taken steps in Jordan to implement her curriculum. Her Safe School Accreditation Program is a model that is applicable to other countries in the Arab world and can be easily replicated.
Laila grew up in a family that valued hard work and community service. Laila’s father enrolled her in the first grade at the age of three and pushed her to excel in school. Laila’s mother was an empathetic and compassionateperson to the extent that Laila’s father would joke that he was afraid to come home to an empty closet, fearing that she had given all his clothes to the needy.
As a teenager, Laila accompanied her mother to regular visits to an orphanage. Laila’s mother would often invite one of the boys from the orphanage to spend time with them at home. He eventually became part of the family. The orphanage thought he was deaf, but Laila’s family discovered that he had a difficult time speaking only because he had been traumatized as a child when he witnessed his father killing his mother. Laila inherited her mother’s innate kindness.
With a mission to help abused and marginalized people, Laila decided to pursue a career as a medical doctor and graduated from medical school in 1980. She had an experience during her training where she came across a burn patient who was being neglected by other nurses because she was a prostitute. Drawn to this marginalized patient, Laila took it upon herself to not only help the patient but also help the nurses understand the importance of treating all patients equally.
Laila went on to get her Masters of Paediatrics Immunology from Cairo University in 1984 and then completed a PhD in Childhood Studies. Her experience working with children led her to a discovery that many physical illnesses are caused by a variety of social and psychological problems. She felt that her role of a doctor had not been addressing the root of so many health problems faced by children and knew that she needed to work at a deeper level than bandaging wounds.
After finishing her PhD, she started a TV program focused on youth issues. She interacted with many children and teens while writing and presenting her program. She became deeply touched by their daily struggles and came face to face with the harsh reality of the number of teens who were victims of sexual abuse as children. In 2007,Laila felt unequipped to deal with the dark details of sexual abuse. In 2009, Laila travelled to South Africa and met with Olindia Bresser, an inspiring survivor of sexual abuse. After seeing a success story, Laila was inspired to go back home to Egypt and start working on this issue. She equipped herself with an internationally approved, three-year diploma and became licensed to work with sexual abuse survivors. In 2010, she founded Not Guilty for Family Development, taking her TV program to a new level and fully dedicating herself to combat the issue of sexual abuse.
Amongst her other interests, Laila has published a book called “Stay Healthy in Egypt” for tourists on how to have a healthy lifestyle. The book was translated to English, German and Italian and sold 12,000 copies. In addition, Laila wrote a series of four children’s books, organised weekly meetings for youth on decision-making, summer camps, sport days, and other creative events for children while addressing the issue of sexual abuse. She is now dedicated solely to combating norms of sexual abuse in Egypt.