DUBAI // A new law takes effect on Wednesday to protect children from abuse and neglect, and support their right to safety, shelter, health care and education.
For the first time, anyone in contact with a child – from parents and teachers to doctors and nurses – can be held accountable for causing harm, and is legally obliged to report cases of suspected abuse.
In Dubai, two child protection centres have been set up to help young people up to the age of 18. “Our child protection specialists will be available on call any time,” said Khaled Al Kamda, director general of the Community Development Authority.
“If a child’s life is in danger then we intervene immediately. The centre has the authority to go, take out the child and remove them to safety.”
In Abu Dhabi, social workers will be available for the first time at a new child affairs prosecution service to assist and investigate cases related to young people.
Nationwide, cases can be reported on the 116111 hotline, with a guarantee of anonymity and confidentiality.
Social workers and lawyers will visit schools after the academic year begins in September to brief staff on the new law, often referred to as Wadeema’s Law in memory of a young Emirati girl tortured to death by her father and his girlfriend.
“We have signed agreements with the Emirates Lawyers Association and with private law firms, so when we go to the schools there will be a lawyer from their side and a social psychologist from our side to educate teachers about the rights of children,” Mr Al Kamda said.
“When a mother calls about a child abuse situation asking what she can do, we will connect her to a lawyer. This advice will be free. It is up to the parent to follow up on the advice.
“But if a child is reported being abused or admitted to hospital, then the case is taken to another level and the parents face action. Whether a fine or jail will be determined by the law.”
Teachers from nursery to senior level will be trained in their responsibilities, what to look for, and how to report cases of abuse.
Anyone who breaks the law faces a fine of up to Dh50,000, and up to 10 years in prison for physical/sexual abuse or criminal negligence of children.
Authorities have urged all schools to appoint a counsellor or psychologist, and hospitals should devise their own reporting structure.
Salha Khalifa, an Emirati lawyer who works in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman, said the law would empower children.
“We know of abuse now only when the child dies, like what happened last month,” she said. Eight-year-old Obaida Al Aqrabawi was sexually assaulted and strangled in Sharjah on May 20. A man has been charged with his murder.
“There are so many cases people don’t talk about because there is shame, so they don’t file a complaint,” Ms Khalifa said. “But with Wadeema’s Law there is a responsibility on teachers, mothers, doctors to speak. Children will gain knowledge to call for help if their dad kicks or hits them, or daughters if their father makes a sexual assault on them.”
Other experts said people who dealt regularly with children would need advice.
Ross Barfoot, a lawyer and co-founder of the Louis Smith Foundation, which helps teenagers with depression, said: “A teacher might think that a pupil is exhibiting signs of abuse but what does that teacher do? What are the obligations on that teacher? Do they report it to police, do they report it to the helpline, do they speak to the Community Development Authority?
“Such arrangements between the CDA and lawyers are needed so people can get guidance.”