DUBAI // Social workers are finding it harder to place abandoned boys with Emirati foster parents, who prefer girls.
The parents' choice is due in part to the custom that requires Muslim women to cover up in the presence of men who are not relatives, which means that when a boy reaches puberty his foster mother must wear a hijab and avoid being alone with him.
As a result, it is harder to find foster families for abandoned boys than girls, said Afaf Al Marri, who chairs Sharjah Social Services.
"Boys, when they become 14 or 15 years old, they cannot stay with us - haram," said Amal Shehab Ahmed, from Dubai, who chose a girl when she decided to take in an abandoned child. Her daughter Sheikha is 4. Ms Ahmed also believes girls are easier to bring up. "They listen to you, they do what you want, they help you, everything."
Dozens of children are found abandoned each year. A 2010 report by Unicef found there were more than 700 "children of unknown parents" in the UAE.
Sharia forbids adoption so an abandoned child cannot be given another family's name, but they can be fostered. Only Emiratis can foster abandoned children, who receive UAE nationality.
The report by Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, found that about 440 children were cared for by foster families and the rest were in institutions. It did not break down the statistics by sex.
Dubai Grand Mufti Dr Ahmed Al Haddad said there was no need for a mother or her daughters to cover up around a male foster child when he was small.
"But when he grows up to become an adult, women in the family must not reveal their attractive attributes in his presence, or be with him all alone," Dr Al Haddad said.
"To them, he remains a foreigner. They have been kind to him when he was a child, now he takes care of himself."
The rule applies in reverse with female foster children, he said. When a girl reaches puberty, she must cover up in front of male members of the family and avoid being alone with them.
Foster mothers can avoid the issue by breastfeeding the child before he turns 2. The boy then "lives normally as a member of the family", Dr Al Haddad said.
But not all foster parents prefer girls. Hala Kazim took in a baby boy who is now a teenager, and said his sex did not influence her.
"I just wanted to adopt," said Ms Kazim, from Dubai. "To me, it didn't matter if it was a boy or a girl … there was a click between him and me when he was a baby."
At Dar Zayed orphanage in Al Ain, sex-specific requests are not a problem because there are more families than eligible children. Last month there were two eligible foster children and 10 families on a waiting list, said general manager Salem Al Kaabi.
Dar Zayed allows foster parents to take in only children younger than 2. Older children live in villas with Dar Zayed "house mothers".
In 2009, a Dar Zayed adoption committee member said girls were far easier to place in new families than boys. She suggested that could be because parents thought girls were easier to bring up.
Dr Al Haddad encouraged families worried about taking in a male foster child to consider the breastfeeding option.
"When a woman breastfeeds a male baby he becomes her son by breastfeeding, and by the same token becomes her husband's son and a brother to her natural sons and daughters," he said.
If the foster mother is unable to breastfeed, her daughter, sister or sister-in law may breastfeed the child, as long as he is under 2, Dr Al Haddad said.