Children's Rights Lacking in Iran, Shapouri Says

April 10, 2006
Sara Shapouri
Sara Shapouri '05 received the Monroe Leigh Fellowship, which provides a total of $10,000 for one or two students to pursue a public international law project of their own choosing during the summer following the first or second year, during the fall and/or spring of the third academic year, or for a postgraduate internship.

Laws don't protect children from abuse in Iran and a lack of information on the problem inhibits reform on the issue, said Sara Shapouri '05, who returned to the Law School to detail her experiences working as a Monroe Leigh Fellow. With the $7,000 grant, Shapouri spent five months at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran in alliance with UNESCO's chair of human rights, peace, and democratic studies. She devoted the majority of her time and research towards child sexual abuse in Iran.

"Probably the biggest problem for my work is that this topic is such a taboo," she said. "Because it's a taboo, because no one talks about it, people are really ignorant of it."

The culmination of Shapouri's time in Iran is a research paper she is currently trying to get published on issues of child sexual abuse. "The purpose of this paper — was to provide recommendations to the Iranian government and society on how best to combat this issue," she said. Her piece focuses on the physical, emotional, and developmental effects of sexual abuse on children in a society where children's rights are often marginalized.

Although investigating the issue was difficult, considering the lack of resources and questionable information, Shapouri believes in the gravity of the abuse problem in Iran.

"I think undoubtedly it exists," she said. "I kind of think of it as sort of a pest problem: you find one and you know there are a thousand more cases like it — Same with exploitation: again, there are no real figures on this but — from articles I've read it seems like child prostitution and trafficking are major problems."

Despite current international treaties in place to punish and suppress the trafficking of children, Islamic law (Shariah) and current government practices allow for particular reservations and limitations to such documents. Any aspect of a treaty seen as incompatible with Islamic law results in what Shapouri calls a "nebulous reservation." Because Shariah fluctuates depending on particular interpretations, it makes such conventions and treaties seem meaningless.

"Laws in Iran [on child sexual abuse] are really quite atrocious," she said. "[There are] no special protections for children. The laws are very vague." One of the solutions outlined in Shapouri's paper is the necessity for detailed definitions of abuse.

Another issue is the age of adulthood, which in Iran is not the same as the age outlined in the Convention on Rights of the Child. In Iran, the age of adulthood is the age of puberty: nine years old for girls and 15 for boys. This definition, for Shapouri, signifies the lack of protection children can receive simply because, under Iranian law, they are considered adults.

"Children who are exploited will be held responsible," she said. "Instead of getting help or services, they are treated like a criminal. It is really essential that they raise the age of adulthood to 18."

Shapouri hopes her paper will be published in Iran in Persian as a means of bringing attention to a severely ignored issue. Yet even though Iran has a history of human rights violations — including arrests without warning, executions, and imprisonments without access — she finds the situation to be slowly improving in the liberal, post-Khatami environment.

"[Iranians] can develop some kind of understanding of Islamic law that is compatible with current human rights standards," she said. "I do think this is a possible thing — Things are getting better — it's a process."

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