With the passage of a major child protection law in the UAE in 2016 and with other steps being taken by Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a crucial area of social policy in the GCC is receiving the attention it deserves. Progress will be even faster, however, if the region’s governments put in place a systematic approach to the prevention, detection and management of child abuse within a comprehensive national framework.
Child maltreatment is a global problem. A quarter of all adults say they were physically abused as children, according to the World Health Organisation, with one in five adult women reporting having been sexually abused as children along with one in 13 men. While nobody knows for sure how much child abuse there is in GCC countries, there is no reason to believe that the incidence is any lower than in other parts of the world. The damage done over the long-term can be devastating.
Governments need to create legislative and policy frameworks that are comprehensive. Within these frameworks, governments need procedures for reporting and intervention in seven categories.
First, governments need a clear definition of the roles of different parties. At the country level, the ministry of social services generally states the national policy with the education ministry responsible for child protection policies in the education sector. Closer to the children who need protection are schools, the police and social and health service providers. Typically, schools bear responsibility for detecting and reporting cases of child maltreatment, and social, health and police agencies handle investigations and interventions.
Schools are particularly important as that is where GCC children spend most of their time – six hours a day on average for elementary and middle-school students and eight hours on average for high-school students. That makes the school the best place to spot signs of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect – the main types of maltreatment involving those under 18 years of age.
Second, governments must develop unified standards to define and identify child maltreatment and these standards must be familiar to all those dealing with children. There are indicators of physical or emotional abuse. For instance, bruises or a child’s inconsistent explanation of maltreatment.
Third, laws should make reporting of suspected abuse mandatory and safe. Teachers, school medical personnel and school social workers should be obliged to report suspected abuse – as should ancillary staff including administrators, bus drivers and janitors. However, they must not fear retribution (including the possibility of job loss in situations where the suspected abuse is happening at school and the reporter’s supervisor may be involved). These mandated reporters must acknowledge in writing that they understand their legal obligations and they should be trained accordingly.
Fourth, this sensitive issue requires confidential record-keeping. The identity of the victim, of the person doing the reporting, and of the suspected perpetrator should never be known to anyone other than investigators and enforcement officials, including the police.
Fifth, the possibility that abuse might happen makes it necessary that there be a safe process for recruiting school staff. This means that careful background checks must be performed on all job candidates, with particularly close looks at anyone with a criminal record or anyone who has interactions with children that may raise concerns. The school’s human resources staff is responsible for identifying high-risk candidates and for continuing to improve screening and evaluation methods.
Sixth, it is important to incorporate child protection in the school curriculum. Making children part of their own defence system is not a new idea – parents have long cautioned their children about interactions with strangers – but applying the concept in a school setting will require dedicated resources. School-run workshops, role-playing sessions and interactive videos can all help children understand how to recognise maltreatment and where they can turn if they encounter it.
Seventh, schools must designate a child protection liaison officer. This is often the school’s principal, but could also be another senior staff member or a trained professional social worker. The CPLO should be the first person to hear about a suspicion of abuse, and is responsible for bringing in the appropriate authorities to investigate. Also, if anything changes in the school’s policies or in the country’s legislation, it falls to the CPLO to stay abreast of those developments and help implement them.
Preventing child maltreatment is a policy imperative. There is clear evidence that abused children grow up with self-esteem issues that can prevent them from holding jobs or from leading fully productive lives in other ways. However, there is a simpler argument in favour of child protection, which is that preventing a child from suffering and from unhappiness is a moral imperative for all of us.
Fadi Adra and Valerie Jambart are partner and manager at Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), part of the PwC network