Art is therapy for girls at Abu Dhabi juvenile detention centre

A group of 14 girls ages 12 to 16 who are serving criminal sentences have been painting and making crafts through workshops organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

ABU DHABI // Art is being used as behavioural therapy for a group of Emirati teenaged girls at a juvenile detention centre.

Fourteen girls, aged 12 to 16, who are serving criminal sentences at Al Mafraq Juvenile Welfare Centre have been painting and making handicrafts through workshops organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

The programme is aimed at giving the girls a chance to learn new skills. Their work will be sold during the holy month at a kiosk and the revenue divided equally among them.

“This will boost their self-esteem and self-value, so each girl starts to love herself and feel that she is not a troublemaker, but has the capability to be a productive individual,” said Lubna Al Tunaiji, a manager at the authority who supervised the programme.

“They also produced bracelets and necklaces, so they learnt a profession that could bring them profit later on.”

Mrs Al Tunaiji said the first phase of the year-long project was a huge success, as the girls had provided positive feedback and shown good interaction.

“We gained their trust and the girls like us a lot. We did not focus on their problems as much as we focused on developing their self-worth,” she said.

“They really liked painting scarves, plates and boxes, and their creative energy came out with this so they succeeded significantly.”

Classes took place four days a week, and included educational workshops and psychological sessions.

“After each workshop we asked them for feedback, and whatever they favoured, we continued to do,” Mrs Al Tunaiji said.

“Their particular favourite were the classes related to Guggenheim, which involved a sort of psychological detox through colours, so this reflected a lot on their psychology and they were eagerly waiting for the teacher every Thursday.”

Their work was displayed in the detention centre so that the girls could see their work each day.

After the initial three months, their work was shown last week at an annual exhibition in Manarat Al Saadiyat, in which art from pupils across Abu Dhabi was also displayed, in coordination with Abu Dhabi Education Council.

Fifteen boys at the detention centre have taken part in the programme, where they were taught to make sculptures.

“There were a lot of paintings, sculptures and handicrafts produced for the exhibition, and it was from their own personal touch,” Mrs Al Tunaiji said. “The teacher would only explain how to make it.”

The idea for the programme came from TCA workshop officer Fatima Omar, who organised the workshops with Mrs Al Tunaiji.

“She has been dreaming of the idea for four years and there were many obstacles in the beginning,” Mrs Al Tunaiji said. “But she managed to make it happen.”

Dr Justin Thomas, an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University, said art could be therapeutic and “offer an outlet for hostility and negative energy”.

“Art can also help a person shift in terms of their self concept,” Dr Thomas said. “Mariam the shoplifter becomes Mariam the portraitist; Ahlam the extortionist becomes Ahlam the poetess.

“Focusing one’s attention on the creative process leaves little room for the mind to generate destructive thoughts or to wander aimlessly from one anxiety-arousing idea to the next.”

Art does not only heal on many levels but it can “help people grow”, he said.

“Criminal behaviour is often just something people need help growing out of,” Dr Thomas said. “Art can be that assistant.”