ABU DHABI // Nursery workers will be trained to recognise signs of child abuse in one of the first programmes to encourage people who work with children to speak up if they suspect ill treatment or neglect.
"We hope to move fast, to be frank," said Tariq Kashmiri, a board member of Arabian Child, the organisation running the 12-hour workshops under licence from the Ministry of Social Affairs. "We don't want a child to be a victim because the system isn't in place, or because unskilled teachers don't have the training to prevent and protect."
At present there are no guidelines on how to report child abuse, and little protection for people who do.
"You don't know where to go," said Maryam Khan, an early-years teacher at International Montessori Nursery in Bain Al Jisreen.
"Not all cases are treated in a standardised way," said Anita Akkawi, who studied child protection for her master's thesis at Dubai School of Government. "It's not like it first goes to, for instance, a hospital where you detect the case. And then you call, for instance, Social Affairs … after the police, what happens? Do you take the kid away?"
A draft law first discussed in 2008 would make child-abuse reporting compulsory for nurses, doctors, social workers and others who care for children. The law would create the framework for a nationwide child-protection system.
"Some children, if they have a problem, they cannot go to their parents, they cannot go to the teacher, they cannot go to the police," said Moza Al Shoomi, director of the Ministry of Social Affairs's Child Department. "But the teacher or the doctor, if they saw some of that, they must tell."
The law would guarantee anonymity to people who report cases of abuse or neglect.
It is awaiting review by the federal Cabinet, then the Federal National Council. After it is signed by the President, the government must develop bylaws.
Karen Sutherland, the lawyer who teaches the Arabian Child training course, said the country cannot wait. "I'm hoping that things are going to come to light very soon," Ms Sutherland told a group of nursery workers this month. "But we're still moving forward."
The ministry approved the child-protection training as part of a professional development programme for nursery staff. The first course began on March 10 at the International Montessori Nursery.
"I'm so happy they're doing this," said the Montessori Nursery director Barbara Knaap. "They've needed it for such a long time."
Arabian Child eventually plans to offer the training to all school staff.
"Teachers, nurseries, early-year providers of education - they are the best people to be able to identify if any child may be suffering," Ms Sutherland said.
Mr Kashmiri said there were four "pillars of child protection" - educators, medical professionals, social workers and police.
"None of them can work separated," he said. "And if we go back and see what's happening in the UAE, you barely see that. Communication is happening between the police force and the social workers … the health and education are completely out of the game."
The issue is particularly difficult because children are most likely to be abused by someone they trust. "The norm is, everybody thinks it's a stranger," Ms Akkawi said. "But really, most of the abuse is from someone the kid knows: within the family, a friend of the family, the cousin, the brother."
There are no nationwide statistics. However, in a 2007 survey of more than 500 high school students in Al Ain, 27 per cent said they had been physically abused and 11 per cent said they had been sexually abused.
Half of those who disclosed physical abuse said the perpetrator was their father, a third named their mother and 41 per cent their brother.
Of those who disclosed sexual abuse, more than a quarter said the perpetrator was a relative; an equal percentage said a friend abused them, 24 per cent named a domestic worker and 21 per cent a stranger.
Because family honour and family unity are crucial values in the region, the impact of culture is important. "It's very sensitive," said Samia Kazi, Arabian Child's chief operating officer. "What you can say, what you cannot say. How you will be looked at, and how the teacher will be treated if she does say something."
"It's a taboo, honestly," said Ms Akkawi. "It's a big issue. It's not easy to talk about, or even say that there is a case."