The Fascinating Be Free Conference

Last weekend I attended Be Free’s international conference on “Effective Strategies for the Prevention of Child Online Pornography, Trafficking, and Abuse”

You can see the Gulf Daily News’ coverage here for Day One, Day Two, and Day Three.

On the opening ceremony of the conference on the evening of the 8th, Be Free Director Dr. Soroor Qarooni gave out the first-ever Be Free International Awards For Best Practices in Child Abuse Prevention, and I’m very proud of the fact that Zen-Do Bahrain was the sponsor of these awards!

When I arrived at the ceremony one of the ladies from Be Free ushered me to the Bahrain TV cameraman, asking him to film me.  He asked me to wait a bit until he was finished with Dr. Qarooni, then it would be my turn.  I said ok but I asked him to make sure to ask me specific questions, as I don’t like to just waffle in front of a camera.  He said that he had no idea what to ask me, and that I’d have to come up with something.  He told me I had a few minutes to gather my thoughts.

So I tried to “gather my thoughts”, which were scattered all over the place, and were particularly reluctant to being gathered that evening.  It was like trying to gather scattered marbles at a reception –  while wearing a thoub and bisht.

Anyway, when my turn came I spoke in Arabic and muttered something like “I’d like to thank Be Free for allowing me to sponsor this prestigious and important event.  I’m honoured to be here.”  I forgot to mention who I was, so we had to do several takes of me mentioning my name.  I doubt they aired it…

There were three recipients of the awards:  Saudi Arabian government organisation the National Family Safety Programme, the Mauritanian Society for the Health of Women and Children, and most interesting of all (in my opinion), former Zen-Do student Saqeq Hasan Al Baharna.

Sadeq is in his final year in the university of Sharja, and pretty much has dedicated his life to helping teenagers live clean and drug-free lives.  He deals with different troubled youths, acting as their unofficial counsellor and coach.  On the second day of the conference Sadeq gave a presentation on a small survey that he did with 32 young Bahrainis.  His findings were quite shocking.  I can’t remember the exact figure but a significant percentage of the youths in his survey had sex (they ranged in aged from 13 to 19 years), and almost 90% smoked!

If I ever get hold of his slides I’ll share more of his findings, but suffice to say that they were quite shocking.  Today’s teenagers are a lot more troubled than we think, and do a lot more than we imagine.

There were many other interesting speakers, including Sarah Robertson, from the Internet Watch Foundation.  The IWF is an independent self-regulatory body based in the UK.  It was established by the UK internet industry to “provide the UK internet ‘Hotline’ for the public and IT professionals to report potentially illegal online content ”

Here are some of the statistics Sarah shared, taken from their 2008 annual report:

– 58% of child sexual abuse domains traced contain graphic images involving penetration or torture (47% of domains in 2007)

– 69% of the children appear to be 10 years old or younger; 24% 6 or under, and 4% 2 or under (80% appeared to be 10 or under in 2007)

– 74% of child sexual abuse domains traced are commercial operations, selling images (80% commercial in 2007)

– It is still rare to trace child sexual abuse content to hosts in the UK (under 1%).  (Actually, most of the sites are hosted in the US)

Another thing she shared was that the actual number of domains containing graphic images of children is shrinking.  Which is the good news, the bad news is that there are still around 1,500 domains that contain images of child sexual abuse.  But, as the annual report states “Importantly, child sexual abuse content represents an extremely small, though extremely serious, proportion of all content on the internet.”

To view the IWF’s annual report click here(20090423_iwf_ar_2008_pdf_version).  (BE WARNED!  This is not light reading.  You may get disturbed!)

It really was an interesting and educational event, and I met some really lovely people, including Mark Capaldi form ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children For Sexual Purposes;  Elena Martellozzo, a lecturer in Criminology from the UK who shared a case study she did with Scotland Yard.  I also had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kate Maguire, who – among many other things – counsels sexually abused and neglected children.  Her PhD is in pain, can you imagine that!

Be Free manager Rana Al-Sairafi also gave a very interesting presentation about some of her findings.  She did a survey on children’s use of the internet.  Click here to see here findings as reported by the GDN.  Her findings are quite scary.

What stuck out the most in her presentation was that 30 percent of the respondents (aged between 4 and 17) were asked to meet by someone they met online!  Also, the number of children that received a request increased with age.

Here’s another: A total of 32% of girls and 27% of boys surveyed said they had felt that someone they had been speaking to online had used inappropriate language.  A participant, aged between 16 and 18, said “one person asked me to describe body parts,” and a female, aged between 16 to 18 said she had been asked embarrassing questions such as ‘what are you wearing?”

Also, “When asked if they felt comfortable about their parents knowing what they did on the Internet, 70% said no.”

Another speaker was 16 year old Bahraini Ammar Rajab.  Ammar is part of a programme in Be Free where they train youths on how to provide coaching to their peers.  The young man gave an impressive presentation on some of the problems faced by today’s youth.

If there were any lessons to be learnt form the conference they are:

– Kids spend a lot more time online than we think.  Also, they spend a lot of time socialising and chatting on social networking sites with people they know – and complete strangers.  So parents should get much more involved in that part of their children’s lives.  They need to learn the technologies involved, no matter how intimidating that thought is.

– Very many children have seen indecent images on the internet.  A significant portion of them quite by accident.  So parents should get filtering software on their children’s computers.  The most famous is probably Net Nanny.

– Many youths feel that their parents don’t understand them.  They feel alienated and distanced from their parents.  Therefore parents should try to be more understanding with their kids.  They should show them unconditional love, and just as importantly, be non-judgmental.  This is probably the hardest thing to implement.

Overall, a really amazing conference.  It was so well organised.  To think that a small group of dedicated women managed to set up such an international conference with more than 100 representatives from ministries, non-governmental organisations and the media from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Palestine, Jordan, Sudan, UK, US and Mauritania is just amazing!

Here’s some more coverage on Aljazeera.net, and from the GDN.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read this and talk to you soon.

2 Responses to The Fascinating Be Free Conference

  1. Faris 13 May 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    On protecting kids from internet usage. My two cents: young children with access to computers should have everything black listed by default. Basically everything is blocked apart from those email recipients or websites and programs that the administrator (the parent!) authorises.

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