UAE's child protection law empowers teachers to tackle abuse, school leaders say

Emirati Children's Day, held on March 15 each year, recognises the introduction of legislation aimed at protecting young people from abuse

Maya Al Hawary, chairman of the board of governors at Dubai Carmel School. Courtesy Maya Al Hawary
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A sweeping child protection law enables teachers to offer greater support to pupils facing abuse or neglect in the UAE, school leaders said.

The legislation, known as Wadeema's Law, was approved on March 15, 2016.

It lays out the legal rights of minors in the country and protects children, defined as anyone aged under 18, from all types of abuse, be it physical, verbal or psychological.

The law was prompted by the death of Wadeema, an 8-year-old Emirati girl

buried in the Sharjah desert in 2012 after being tortured by her father and another adult.

Since the law came out, children have been able to have a voice

Every year on March 15, Emirati Children’s Day, the UAE remembers Wadeema and recognises the strides made possible by the protective law.

Maya Al Hawary, chairwoman of the board of governors at Dubai Carmel School, a private school, says teaching staff have been empowered to act on behalf of at-risk children.

“Since that policy came out, we have used it extensively,” she said.

“We had several instances where pupils came from their homes beaten and abused.

“Before the law we could not do anything about it, because who would we talk to?”

A strong support network is now in place for teachers concerned about pupils’ welfare.

In November 2019, the Ministry of Education launched a Child Protection Unit comprising specialists who can intervene in cases involving children deemed at risk of abuse. They also offer support to families and provide education and rehabilitation.

“We would try to bring in the family but the children would beg us not to, as they were afraid,” Ms Al Hawary said.

“Since the law came out, children have been able to have a voice.”

Ms Al Hawary said Dubai Carmel School had measures in place to support children.

When staff suspect a pupil is being abused at home, they ask the family to come in, and advise them the child protection unit will be informed if the situation is not addressed.

“The Child Protection Unit are an amazing authority. They follow up and it can come to a point where they can take the child away from the parents” in cases of severe abuse, Ms Al Hawary said.

She said pupils are educated about the child protection policy as part of their curriculum.

“They have a voice and they feel heard; they can take charge of their life,” she said.

“Parents also know that their children or the school can scrutinise them and they have to take responsibility.”

She said child abuse can show itself in a variety of ways at school. Sometimes pupils will turn up with physical signs of being assaulted, while others fall asleep in classes if they have not slept at home.

“The child protection policy is not only about abuse, but about mistreating children, and not allowing them to have normality in their lives. A lack of sleep is abuse to the child as well,” she said.

“The reason could be a very active nightlife or drug abuse.”

She said the school had an internal child protection policy in place before Wadeema’s Law was introduced.

But Ms Al Hawary said having legal structures in place has more weight and ensures everyone follows the rules.

“Now, these instances [of child abuse] have become more uncommon but you still have these once or twice a year,” she said.

“I am hoping children know what to do and it is part of school education to raise awareness of their rights.”

Teachers monitor children’s behaviour closely and take note if it changes suddenly. If there is no obvious explanation, that can signal abuse at home.

Robert Welsh, a public schoolteacher in the UAE, said interventions are quick.

He said teachers watch out for any significant change in behaviour or if a child misbehaves, and alert the school counsellor.

The counsellor will then address the problem with the pupil or the family.

“There have been a few incidents where we called the parents in,” Mr Welsh said.

“Once people know there are consequences to their actions, they are aware and alert. They know these things should not happen.

“The government agencies have helped to create awareness.”