'Spare the rod': Arab world needs to change attitudes towards physical child discipline

Summit in Abu Dhabi told of need in shift in attitudes

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The Arab world needs to move away from the belief that physically punishing children will discipline them, a summit on child welfare heard.

Delegates at the Arab Regional Conference on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, held in Dubai on Monday, heard that corporal punishment could trigger a cycle of abuse. They were encouraged to teach parents in the Arab world to 'spare the rod'.

Saudi Arabia said it would launch a campaign called No Hit Zone next year and called for similar projects in the region. The No Hit Zone project aimed to show parents alternative methods to raising a hand to discipline a child.

“This is a widespread problem in our community. A lot of time people think corporal punishment works and we argue with parents that it does not.

"We need to change social norms, help parents understand that it accumulates negative experiences in the child’s brain, creates stress and can cause risky behaviour when they grow up,” said Dr Maha Al Muneef, a paediatric specialist.

“We will start in schools, hospitals and hope it will be expanded to more public spaces to educate parents to control their temper and change a child’s behaviour without hitting.”

Arab nations had the worst record in corporal punishment, according to a 2014 Unicef study that showed Yemen and Egypt as registering the highest rates of physical punishment of children aged two to 14 years.

A study of 16,000 school students in 2015 in Saudi Arabia revealed that 65 per cent suffered psychological abuse, 40 per cent physical and 10 per cent sexual abuse.

UAE ministers said children were a top priority while acknowledging that constant awareness was required in homes and schools.

“If there is misbehaviour by parents or teachers, children must know who they can turn to. We have simple steps in place so starting from kindergarten, our role is to prepare the child about what is acceptable behaviour and parents understand they are fully responsible for their children,” said Jameela Al Muhairi, UAE minister of state for public education.

A year after implementation of the Child Protection Law, popularly called Wadeema’s Law, after an eight-year-old Emirati girl tortured to death by her father and his girlfriend, doctors and teachers must report suspected cases of abuse and child protection specialists have the authority to remove a child from an abusive home.

Abdullah Al Khayat, chairman of the Dubai Foundation of Women and Children said the aim was to invest all effort in protecting children.

“We need to continue to work to transform the legislation and recommendations into a tangible reality,” he said.

While child protection legislation and policies have been strengthened in Arab nations, enforcement and data collection was lacking.

“We have all done a lot of work on the legislative level but still there is a wide gap between legislation and application even though we have ratified the convention on child protection 20 years ago,” said Majid Al Eissa, president of the Arab Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Dr Al Muneef, executive director of the National Family Safety Programme in Saudi Arabia and chairwoman of the Arab Society, spoke of an absence of government reports from each country on child abuse.

“We see statistics from the health, social and other sectors but there is no integration of data. Arab countries have achieved a lot in setting up legislation but we have a long way to go. The focus must be on protection and prevention, this is better than searching for a cure after the abuse has taken place.”