Can Israel fight the 'secret pandemic' of sexual violence amid COVID-19?

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': Tamar Beeri with Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel executive director Orit Sulitzeanu - Episode 5

JPost one-on-one Zoomcast - Episode 5
Sexual abuse is a complex subject in Israel, but throughout the last year, it's not the only pandemic Israel has faced. The entire world has been completely ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, and with it, Israel saw a 33% rise in reports of sexual abuse. How did the pandemic have such a drastic effect on these high numbers?
The pandemic is a very complex situation, which actually made the other secret pandemic – as maybe you can call it – come out. You can imagine many houses with parents or siblings, and there's abuse in these houses.
I should say one very important statistic: One out of five children in Israel suffers or suffered from sexual violence. This is the biggest research ever done in the country. A few years ago, we surveyed 10,000 children in Israel. It was a big research effort done by a researcher from the University of Haifa. Now imagine to yourself: There's a quarantine, the house is closed, children are in the house, and the father or the brother is there. And while children could usually do things – in the morning by going to school, or going to their friends – to sort of avoid these abusive relationships, there's suddenly nowhere to go. No schools, no teachers, nobody that can see you. And in these houses, the children and the wives suffer very much.
And that's why there was such a surge of calls to the police and also to us at the rape crisis centers in Israel. We at the Association of Rape Crisis in Israel are an umbrella organization of nine centers. In our centers, we had a rise of 80% of reports to our WhatsApp service, a 50% rise to our online service and a 30% rise to just regular calls. And it's very interesting if you analyze that, because you can understand why was there this huge rise to the online and WhatsApp services, because this was the only way somebody could take their phone secretly in the house and write something. You don't have to speak to anybody. That was very, very bad, and I want to tell you one more thing. We have not yet discovered the horrible implications of this whole thing.
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I see. Do you believe that there are long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic's sexual assault crisis?
I really believe so, and I will tell you that every day in the Israeli newspapers in the past few weeks that there are a lot of articles talking about the implications of COVID on many issues, such as on the mental health of the population. We can very easily understand that.
I'm talking about the mental health. I'm talking about what will happen to these families when everything will be open again, children will go back to school, more wives will go to work. There's a big, big problem for women, and not only in Israel, we just heard about it in the states yesterday. Around 70% of the people fired or who needed to leave the workplace are women. Jobs like working in a store or working at a restaurant – women do these kinds of jobs, and all of these things are closed now. 
So the mental health of the population is deteriorating, but nobody can deal with that right now. So I'm very, very worried that after the quarantine will finish and we slowly, slowly return back to our normal lives, we will se horrible, horrible problems. People going to hospitals, mental health wards.
For children, it takes time for the trauma of sexual violence to come out. This is a little different than trauma from when a wife suffers from violence, from battery from her husband. That is an immediate thing. You can see that, you can feel that. Women who are in this situation go to shelters for battered women. But with sexual violence, it takes time for this kind of phenomena to unveil. It's like an onion that slowly, slowly you can see what's inside.
I'm very worried about that, and I can tell you one more thing. There's a huge, huge need for mental health treatment. The waiting time until you get this kind of public service reaches two years. So if you now suffer from mental trauma, you need to wait two years. And until two years pass, you'll be in a horrible situation if you don't have money and you need funded public care. That's the situation in Israel right now.
What can the government do to advance such issues? What sort of changes can they make?
First of all, I want to pray that we will have a stable government in Israel, because as you know, the chaotic situation here with so many elections and so much money goes into these campaigns – I want to cry when I think about it. I want to cry when I think about this money, that instead of helping all the candidates get a seat could help the very horrible social problems in Israel. The government can do a lot.
First of all, it's very, very basic in Israel. I should say something good about what's going on here. In Israel, there's an understanding that it's the government's responsibility to treat the victims. That's why both the health and welfare systems in Israel subsidize free public treatment. But because the service has such a huge demand, we have such long waiting lines. So the [Finance Ministry] should give the [Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry] a few million shekels to fund public treatment. This is an acute problem. This is part of your health. This is part of enabling a mother to take care of her children.
I can tell you a lot of stories, if you would like to hear, about what happened to mothers, to families that suddenly collapsed because the mother – because of sexual trauma and because the trigger of COVID-19 – suddenly could not be a mother, you know? We have many stories of women who really collapsed through COVID-19.
So this is very, very important, and really, I think it's just something very essential and very basic, like you have to drink water, you have to have a good mental situation. So this is an acute problem. We as an organization got funding to do a big report and study on what the accessibility is today for women and men – I also want to talk about men – to mental health treatment.
I want to tell you that we got calls from men who are from haredi communities, ultra-Orthodox communities, that suddenly because of COVID-19 had to go back home,  you know? Maybe the work somewhere, the work was closed, no money to pay rent, they go back home, and who is in this home? The perpetrator. And maybe he does not hurt today, but just to see him triggers all the trauma. So men also suffer. For the government, this is an acute thing they must take care of. Not only putting people in jail, but treating the population who are under great stress and strain and are in a very bad mental health situation right now.
What can families of those who are experiencing this kind of trauma do? What can be done to prevent the situations in the first place within the familial unit?
This is the million dollar question. It's very complex. This is one of the main things we see as one of the most important things the country can do, and we're not there at all. We think that for every normal country, as part of the educational system, kids should learn about boundaries, what is okay and what is not okay, what is healthy sexuality and what is not healthy.
My children, for example, when they were young, they learned in the first grade, second grade, third grade the term "my body is my own." You know, like a little girl saying "My body is my own, don't touch my body." This is very nice to learn that, but you can understand very deeply that when there is someone who is very, very manipulative and tells a little child "oh this is a secret between me and you," she doesn't know to say "my body is my own," and it does not help.
So what should happen, and it does not happen in Israel, is that every child in our education system has to learn through the years what is okay and what is not okay. We at the rape crisis centers subsidize and give dozens or hundreds of workshops for children, but this is all funded through philanthropy – very good people who care about that – or some schools in Israel who really care about that. But this is not something that is systematic.
And I'll tell you something that is very very basic. Maybe you even remember yourself when you were in first grade, you learned how to cross a road. When I was a little girl, I used to love to draw the crossing in the street.
Yeah, and every child has this special little lawbook and you learn all the rules how to cross the road, how to stand when there are traffic lights and so on. This is basic for life. I think sexual violence is not something unique and not something extraordinary. I'm very sad to say but the more years I work in this field - and I've been the CEO of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers for eight years - I deeply understand that it's part of life. So many people suffer from sexual violence. Children are very vulnerable to that because every adult who has problems can very easily assault a child. It's very easy to do that.
So kids have to learn that, and the schools have to put that in a systematic way. It does not happen today, it happens very sporadically. there is no regulation from the Education Ministry and there is no demand when that should happen. It all depends on goodwill and how much the principal of the school, the teacher or someone in the school cares about it.
This is not the way an education system should work. And in the COVID-19 situation when my kids and all kids in Israel study through Zoom and can hardly stay eight hours through Zoom, that's even more problematic. So it should be an essential part of the Israeli education system, and every education system.
You spoke about Zoom. I'm curious, how does this movement to an online platform affect the tendencies of sexual abuse in Israel?
That is a very good question. There is a big rise of reports to the 105 service in Israel, which is online sexual abuse and online bullying and all the online problems. the zoom enables - and it's bigger than just sexual abuse, it's abuse of children who can through Zoom and through the internet bully each other and also shame each other and assault. I can tell you one thing, I have a girl, she's in 7th grade, and all the time she's on this [gestures at phone] or the computer and the Internet. If you're in a family that has problems, or you have all kinds of despair or emotional problem and you're a young girl, you can be board and suddenly get somebody on your Instagram sending you all kinds of messages. "Ah, hi, how are you?" And if you're very, very lonely and you don't have parents who look at what you're doing, this young girl or young boy can have some adults somewhere start to assault them, sending them photographs, asking them to do all kinds of things. This is a big, big problem in the country.
Again, the family is a basic unit, but who gives help to the family? This is a big, big problem that the whole world has to deal with. I meet grown-up women who were assaulted when they were young. And I see many times that when something happens in the family – for example you have a mother or father who is very ill and in the hospital. So the parents are concentrated on taking care of each other, or maybe a sick child or some kind of other problems. Suddenly, the child is alone, and these kinds of situations make the children more at risk. So I think the system should be aware, but it has to be a program to see the big picture, not just deal with cases and specific cases and how to help.
Today in Israel, you've got so many problems and nobody deals with that in a systematic way. Up to 70% of the people who are in psychiatric wards or go to mental wards to get treatment suffered when they were young, and sometimes from sexual violence. It's a really a widespread problem, and it makes many things collapse.
That's a horrible number.
Yeah. First, when I came to this job I heard about incest. I heard the data that one to seven kids suffer from incest. I thought to myself "wow that's amazing!" Now, when I'm working, I really meet these people. It's really all over. It's hard to believe, but that is the truth. And once we acknowledge the data and the situation, then we have the tools to make change.
The first thing is to name the situation, claiming that this is the reality and then work for change, but we're not there yet. And it's very very sad to see how the lives of people are affected, and if they got the help in time, many things could have changed.
And it's also a generational thing. Children who grow up in these kinds of family and suddenly - usually its the mother – collapses because she suffered from sexual violence. Then what happens to the child? It's more generations of these kinds of problem.
I see.
I'm sorry, you seem very weird and it's not easy to hear that, it's very hard, but you can do a lot to change, there is a lot to be done to change. And that's why I'm very optimistic. But it's not easy, it's really not easy and I'm sorry to make you and the people who hear this podcast sad, but you have to acknowledge that this is part of life, a very sad social phenomenon and we have to fight to make the numbers smaller.
Thank you Orit for your fight on the subject. Thank you for being here with us today. This was a very enlightening discussion.
Thank you so much, and I just want to add that if somebody hears this and wants to call us, I'll tell you at least the two main numbers. It's *1202 hotline for women who suffer from sexual violence and *1203 for men who suffer from sexual violence. and we have special numbers for the Arab community and religious community and chat online, and you can find all of these on our social media, but these are the two main numbers. Thank you so much for your interest and care on this issue.