Children at risk of abuse 'to be protected'

If a Dubai child protection policy becomes law, the Government would be required to provide services to families at risk.

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DUBAI // A new child-protection policy brings the emirate a step closer to a legal system for cases of child abuse and neglect.

The policy, written by the Community Development Authority (CDA), details measures to protect children and investigate abuses of their rights.

"Everybody has to understand that children are there to be protected. It's a right," said Samia Dhaoui, project manager for the policy. "It's not up to them to apply that right or not."

Ms Dhaoui presented the policy to Dubai's Executive Council last month and it was approved soon after. If it becomes law, the Government would provide services to families at risk and visits to homes where children are believed to be in danger.

The law would complement, and possibly precede, a federal child-protection law drafted in 2008 but not yet enacted.

"The Government is very keen to see the policy implemented, even before the federal policy is adopted," said Khaled Al Kamda, director general of the CDA.

Dubai is the second emirate after Sharjah to address child abuse systematically. The policy includes all children, whether they are living in Dubai or passing through.

"It is a major, major step," said Sanjana Bhardwaj, an instructor at Zayed University and a former child-protection consultant. "I think the most important part is that it is covering all children, irrespective of their nationality."

The rest of the country must follow, Ms Bhardwaj said.

"We have to pick up the momentum now," she said. "Education has to be done in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, and perhaps there is ignorance of the issue.

"But that does not mean abuse and neglect is not happening in those emirates. It is just not reported."

CDA staff began to research the policy in late 2010. Now the authority must draft a law based on the policy.

The law will link the roles of different government bodies and close the gaps between them, Mr Al Kamda said.

"Everyone is doing their best and they are doing various initiatives, but there are no ties to those initiatives," he said.

The first goal is to promote awareness of children's rights, Ms Dhaoui said. The second is to prevent the mistreatment of children.

"We know exactly what early signs are there, so we can protect the child from the beginning," she said.

The third goal is to develop a "comprehensive and integrated system" to deal with cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation, Ms Dhaoui said.

In her research, she found there are channels to report child abuse in Dubai, but some people are not aware of them.

"Sometimes it doesn't target all the different groups - different languages, different characteristics - that live in Dubai," Ms Dhaoui said.

Some people are wary of reporting cases to the police.

"It can sometimes be really an obstacle for people to call, because they don't know exactly what consequences are going to happen," she said. "Am I going to be involved if I call the police?"

The CDA wants to work closely with the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which runs a hotline for abuse cases, on 800-111.

Because local law might make child abuse reporting mandatory in certain situations, Dubai must be prepared for an influx of cases, Ms Dhaoui said.

Implementing the law will not be easy, she and Mr Al Kamda said.

One challenge will be to reconcile different ideas about parenting in Dubai's multicultural environment, Mr Al Kamda said.

"Abuse to one, normal behaviour or discipline to others …" he said. "Yet people have to follow the rule of the country."

Another challenge will be a lack of data.

"There are numbers we don't have, the country doesn't have," Mr Al Kamda said. "We don't have it because it's not reported. An issue, yes. But that shouldn't stop us from really implementing the policy."