The number of reported child abuse cases last year was up by more than 100 per cent compared with 2020, Dubai welfare authorities say.
Maj Dr Ali Mohammed Al Matrooshi, director of child and women protection at Dubai Police’s General Department of Human Rights, said strong child protection laws, good outreach programmes and prevention strategies have made people more confident to seek help.
He said 243 child abuse cases were reported last year, compared with 103 in 2020.
The Wadeema case that was reported in 2016 was a watershed moment in legislation to safeguard the rights and welfare of children.
Wadeema, a young Emirati girl, was tortured and killed by her father and his girlfriend. Her body was found buried in the Sharjah desert in 2012. The case shocked the nation and prompted the creation of the new child protection law.
Since then, Dr Al Matrooshi's department has been working hard to protect children. He said their work has paid off, as more people are informed about the rights of children and women.
Cases are being reported and resolved. Some were even found not to be true, he said.
“These reports happened following the Covid-19 outbreak when most families and children were at home,” he said.
Out of 243 cases, 50 involved child maltreatment; 58 involved physical abuse; 32 involved children being denied official documents; 35 were for children being denied education, 8 cases involved children being left unsupervised, and two involved children who were not taken to hospital when ill, among others.
Abusers are mostly known
Most abusers are either immediate family members or close relatives, and children are often intimidated to report them.
The officer said about 69 cases were caused by the father, 31 by the mother, 20 by a familiar person and six by school staff members.
Most of the reports involved children aged between 11 and 18.
“The majority of cases often happen behind closed doors, so reporting them can sometimes be tough,” Dr Al Matrooshi said.
To address the problem, the police launched several initiatives and awareness campaigns to educate parents, teachers and school staff.
The police ensure victims are given security and privacy. They are protected from intimidation and retaliation, and their identity is not disclosed.
“We understand how most victims get emotionally distressed if they had to talk to an officer to report their problem," Dr Al Matrooshi said.
The victims can report anonymously on an app. All they have to do is provide a brief about their problem and a phone number — and an officer will contact them.
More than 15 employees in the department have been trained on how to properly engage with victims.
Investigations are held in secret and in the presence of psychological experts.
Victims who face difficulties returning to their homes during a continuing case are provided shelter at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children until their cases are resolved.
“We provide them with the protection they need and continue to work on the case until it's resolved. We also make sure they will not be subjected to abuse again,” Dr Al Matrooshi said.
Increasing awareness is crucial
Public awareness is important to preventing abuse and neglect.
Since 2019, Dubai Police have been holding safety sessions in schools to help children understand abuse and how to report it.
“The scheme called Safety Ambassadors began in 2019 and involved educating a number of children from Dubai's private and public schools about children's rights,” said Fatima Al Beloushi, head of awareness at the department.
They were informed about their rights and how to know if they were being deprived of any.
Children were taught about neglect and all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation, and how to say no if they were subjected to it.
To date, about 1,150 pupils aged between seven and 18 from 115 public and private schools have attended these sessions.
Children were coached by experts from the police department and 47 other accredited lecturers.
They then held face-to-face and online meetings with their peers and talked to more than 7,000 children about their rights, bullying, drug abuse, online safety and how to report matters to the police.
“It's a stronger message when delivered from one child to another rather than from an adult to a child whether be it a teacher, an officer or anyone else,” Ms Al Beloushi said.
Given its success, the programme is being implemented in schools across the country.
“Representatives from relevant departments in other emirates will receive training by our experts on how to coach the children,” Dr Al Matrooshi said.