Single mothers in UAE will shoulder the blame after most divorces

Single mothers deserve better treatment and support from society to start life afresh.

Since she separated from her husband, Fatma Salim has been through a tough journey that started on the very first day after the divorce. First and most importantly, she faced obstacles as she fought over the custody of her son.

Her 10-year-old would often beg her to move back in with him and his father so that the three of them could live together as they once did. And so she had to convince her son that it was better for him - and for her and her former husband - for them to live apart. It reached a point where the son knew that the only way he would be able to live with his mother again was for his father to pass away. It was a heartbreaking realisation.

Being a single mother is a challenge for any woman, regardless of which country she lives in. Under any circumstances, parenting is an enormous challenge that requires consistent effort and sacrifice. But in some societies, including in the UAE, social stigma adds another dimension to a single mother's struggle.

Ms Salim is just one example of a woman who lost custody of her child, after authorities found in favour of the father. But then she had to fight another battle against the society that surrounds her. Unlike many others, however, she wanted to tell her story, and she told me that many people blamed her for leaving her husband. She also has to tolerate constant questions about the reasons why she divorced, and not-so-subtle suggestions that she should have stayed with her ex-husband regardless.

Her son was the one who paid the price for the divorce, but that did not mean that his mother was guilty of some sort of dereliction of parenthood - in her marriage, divorce seemed like the only solution.

Ms Salim also told me that she felt that many women looked at her as a bad role model for their young daughters. And men who want to get to know her with a view to marriage always change their minds when they find out that she has a child, even though her son does not live with her all the time.

Her case is somewhat rare among divorcees in the UAE, as women are generally awarded custody of their children until they reach majority, as long as the women meet specific conditions and do not remarry. And so many divorced mothers will not even consider getting married again given the risk that they might lose custody of their children, especially if they are very young.

This sometimes means that single mothers will have to take the entire responsibility for their children, as the breadwinner as well as the caregiver, when their ex-husbands start new lives and new families. In this society, men typically have more opportunities to start over than women do.

According to the letter of the law, fathers are required to continue to financially support children and provide a residence. But in practice, many fathers abandon this responsibility and provide very little assistance - "deadbeat dads", they are called in the United States - and so many cases end up in court.

A friend told me about her mother, who has four children and faced many difficulties after she left her husband because he chose to marry someone else. Without my friend's grandmother, the family would not have been able to survive financially. Many newly single women have never held a job in their lives.

In that case, the children were lucky to have a grandmother around to lend support. In other cases, single mothers rely on family members for support, but are seen as a burden, and treated poorly as a result.

Divorce rates are increasing in the UAE. According to a survey by Euromonitor International, the total number of single-parent households more than doubled between 2006 and 2011, to more than 110,000. There are some single fathers, but most of these households are headed by single mothers.

These women face so much pressure from society, which in most cases blames women more than men. That adds to their emotional burden as many of them are made to feel that they are the reason that their children live without fathers, even if divorce or separation wasn't their decision.

As many of these women face difficulties starting new lives and finding new husbands, if they so choose, many of them have to fight the perception among some men that they are "easy". And some men do try to take advantage of their situation.

Single mothers - separated, divorced or widowed - all need community support. Blaming divorced mothers for not holding their families together, as if it was their fault alone, achieves nothing. Sometimes divorce, even if it is unfortunate, is the only solution. Single mothers deserve another chance to start new lives, and need respect from society to do so.

Ms Salim's family respected her decision and her right to choose what she thought was best for her and for her child. But so many women in our society struggle to fight a negative social stigma and mistreatment, sometimes coming from their very own families.

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui