AL AIN // As the first Emirati female social worker in the UAE, Dr Mona al Bahar is well qualified to identify a need to shake up the profession and extend the role of her colleagues in the field. Dr al Bahar has highlighted the key part social workers play in schools, listening to students who might not have anyone else to turn to and providing guidance and moral support.
A thorough review of the social service system was needed in the light of cultural and social changes, she said. Dr al Bahar has come up with recommendations to improve the standard of service, including having the Ministry of Education increase the number of social workers in schools, having schools assign proper tasks to them, better incentives and the drawing up of a code of ethics. The role of a social worker was often misunderstood and needed to be addressed, said Dr Bahar, an assistant professor of social work at the UAE University in Al Ain.
"A social worker helps students to overcome their difficulties, mental or academic ones, to enhance their performance. Instead we see social workers assigned to do administrative roles sometimes. This creates more pressure on them and would distract them from carrying out their proper tasks." Too few social workers meant they were often overloaded with work and unable to offer a proper service, she added.
"Sometimes there's one social worker for a school that has 500 or more students. There won't be time even to study their cases, let alone going through therapeutic processes for them. "There is a need, therefore, to increase the number of social workers at schools and also restrict their roles to enhancing the well-being of students or communicating with parents for the same purpose." She said social workers were not offered sufficient incentives, including promotions "depending on their skills and experience.
"Any other school staff can be promoted, but not social workers," she said, warning that the lack of incentives discouraged students thinking of specialising in the field. Also lacking was a code of ethics that reflects the culture of the region. "This is an important issue. We teach our students the ethics of this profession, but we use the international codes of ethics," Dr al Bahar said. The principles of the profession, according to those codes, included maintaining the privacy of the client, respecting the client's ethnic or religious background and the freedom of the client to choose a solution that suited their abilities.
"There are similarities, but we call for a code of ethics special to this region," Dr al Bahar said. "While group therapy, for example, can be smoothly conducted in western societies, it's very difficult to do it here for issues pertinent to tribal and family privacy. "It's not easy for one to say publicly, 'I'm alcoholic' in this culture. It's very difficult for one to talk about their parents or family troubles in front of their peers.
"A lot of people would refrain from seeking help if the process involves a group discussion of their issues." Dr al Bahar added that the lack of recognition of the role of social workers was diminishing the profession. "We hope that the public attitude towards social service will change. It is, in fact, slowly changing. People are starting to appreciate the relevance of this profession." She argued that the need for professionals to help individuals was increasing because of weaker family relationships and fading cultural forces such as religion.
"In the past, the family or religion would be the refuge of a person who had personal worries. Now a person's worth is measured by how much they offer to themselves. An individual is busy all the time and therefore the gap widens between them and their families and friends. "This lack of communication makes it difficult for family to offer the needed help, hence the need for a professional who would delve into the patient's issues and solve them," she said.