Dubai // The absence of a clear definition of a child's rights is hampering efforts at child protection, researchers say. As a result, a law on the subject continues to hang in the balance, despite being drafted two years ago.
A Dubai School of Government (DSG) forum last Sunday called for an immediate enactment of the child protection law, and a national strategy to unite all concerned authorities for a holistic approach to child protection.
At the forum, Anita Akkawi and Fatma Belherif, researchers from the DSG, presented findings of their investigations on the matter.
The two women, graduates of the DSG Masters in Public Administration programme, interviewed 132 people - including stakeholders such as police, education and health officials - and found 91 per cent agreed the UAE needed a child protection law.
Still, researchers said that consensus was somewhat diluted by respondents' inability to provide a unanimous definition of child rights.
"Some people thought child protection was more like not allowing a child to smoke, or not allowing a child to stay out after midnight," Ms Akkawi said. "People also said Sharia provides the framework and protection was available, which shows a lack of understanding of the role of the law itself."
For real change to occur, the researchers said, a working definition of abuse and protection of children was needed, as well as a fact-finding mission to establish the degree of prevalence of abuse.
"During interviews with key government stakeholders, no one was able to provide a picture on how prevalent child abuse is," Ms Belherif, co-author of the study, said.
Ms Akkawi said the results of their research pointed to a fear of government intervention in family affairs and an unclear definition of child rights as the major barriers to the passing of the child protection act.
"The issue of government intervention into private, family affairs is a big challenge in putting forward the child protection agenda," Ms Akkawi said. "In the UAE, what happens in the house remains in the house."
Ruba Tabari, an educational psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre, who also spoke at the forum, agreed people were accustomed to keeping things quiet.
"I came across a situation not too long ago where a primary school child was raped by an older school boy on the bus," she said. "When I spoke to the teachers who were aware of it, they seemed unperturbed. They were like, 'Oh, it happens, it happens in their homes, this is how they are'.
"This is not how they are. This is not right."
Ghassan Khalil, an adviser on social policy and strategic planning at the Community Development Authority (CDA), said schools could approach the local education authority in serious cases.
He added that every school should have a child protection mechanism, where a child could post complaints without fear. "Children should be given a voice and a system like an e-mail account or a grievance box. They should also be taught how to protect themselves."
Public schools are required to have at least two social workers on staff to ensure the welfare of the students. Yet, public school inspections have found a shortage of trained social workers, according to Fatma al Marri, the chief executive of the Dubai Schools Agency.
"Most [of the social workers] have retired, and those that are still there are either doing administrative jobs or waiting to retire," she said.
"Even though the law is drafted, it seems like it is not a priority on the Government's agenda," said Ms Akkawi. "It is important that the public believes in the system, because without trust it is bound to fail."