Shades of grey as the nation fights scourge of child abuse

The UAE is making progress against the worldwide horror of child abuse. But there is still a lot to do.

Aisha was busy that day, and she looked away for just a moment, and so failed to see the car that was bearing down on her child. She lost her 5-year-old son in that car accident, which happened right in front of her eyes.

That story is just an element of Aisha descends to the Underworld, a novel by the Kuwaiti writer Buthaina Al Issa. The entire series of essays written by Aisha reflects on her child and on her life in general.

As a young woman living in the GCC, Aisha followed a long-standing tradition: arranged marriage. Even though she was not convinced that this was the best way to find a life partner, she decided to be "realistic" and agreed to an arranged marriage. He came from a decent family, was well-educated and had a good reputation.

Two months later, she found herself married to this man whom she barely knew, and she found that she had difficulty communicating with him. She became depressed. After one year, she decided to have a child, not because she was ready and wanted to, but because it seemed the only way to move on with her life. But after her son's death, she rejected any attempt by her husband to convince her to have another child. She thought that having one had been a mistake that she did not want to repeat.

Aisha descends to the Underworld might be a work of fiction, but Al Issa relied on the real-life stories that are common in Gulf societies, where so many people decide to get married and have children without realising the huge amount of responsibility that comes with that decision.

One consequence - neglect - might be considered to be the most common form of child abuse. A study at the University of Sharjah found that 40 per cent of children surveyed in middle schools said they felt neglected in some sense. According to the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, neglect is "the failure to provide for a child's basic needs - physical, emotional or educational". It ranges from a lack of supervision to outright abandonment.

Simple neglect, of course, does not always rise to the level of actual abuse, although in the case of abandonment or serious harm it certainly does. But we all know of stories about children in the UAE, just as in every other country in the world, who have been subjected to other forms of child abuse: physical, emotional and sexual. A 2007 study focused on 581 Grade 10 students in Al Ain found that 62 per cent of them reported some form of abuse. In 53 per cent of the cases, the reported abuse was emotional; 27 per cent of cases involved physical abuse; and the remainder involved sexual abuse or other factors.

Most cases of emotional and physical abuses tend to be committed by family members, and they are often ignored or perhaps even tolerated as a form of discipline. Half of those who reported physical abuse said their fathers were the perpetrators, 41 per cent identified their brothers and 33 per cent named their mothers. In many societies, it is the line between "discipline" and abuse that needs to be better defined.

In the past year, a more extreme example of abuse has shocked the nation: the tragic case of an 8-year-old girl, Wadeema, and her 7-year-old sister, who were both subjected to torture for months. The case came to light after Wadeema's body was found buried in the desert and her sister was rescued. The case is now in the courts, but many abusers remain free and the victims untreated.

This must change. Wadeema's Law - which is pending review by the Federal National Council - will redefine child-protection measures and establish a new type of relationship between authorities and families. The new law will give social workers the right to visit families regularly, offer services, and in severe cases intervene and remove children from harmful circumstances. Healthcare professionals, educators, social workers, child carers and other people dealing with children will all be responsible for reporting child abuse cases to authorities.

But will society embrace the new law? Nursery staff have already expressed concerns over the possible consequences if they report suspected abuses, according to the Dubai-based consultancy Arabian Child, which surveyed 57 employees in nurseries. Less than half knew where to report abuse in the first place. Some parents also expressed concerns during an open meeting with FNC members on Sunday, saying the law might deter parents from disciplining their children.

The UAE has taken a crucial first step, setting a broad policy to prevent child abuse and hold the perpetrators accountable. That sends an extremely important message that the UAE has zero tolerance for child abuse and neglect. However, reforming attitudes and cultural norms will take a long time, and the safety of children will not be ensured without a deeper understanding about the root causes of the problem.

What is needed now is full enforcement by all parties, including police, education and healthcare officials, and staff at community and recreational centres. The whole society has to be involved in reporting on such cases, while at the same time respecting the rights and privacy of families that are not abusive. Awareness campaigns are crucial to educate people and encourage them to act when necessary.

Married couples also need to be aware of the responsibility involved in having children - not just in preventing abuse, but in the range of life-changing caring duties. If prospective parents understand these responsibilities beforehand, neglect and worse forms of abuse will be much rarer.

Aisha realises that she was not ready for a child, but only after tragedy struck. In real life, how many couples are fully informed to make these decisions beforehand?

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui