The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children estimates children make up close to one-third of those in its shelters. In the region at large, Unicef estimates 90 per cent of young children have been victims of physical or psychological violence at least once.
Yet a legal framework to ensure cases of child abuse are properly handled by the police, public prosecutors and courts of law is still lacking. In the UAE, the drafting of federal laws to address these concerns has been too slow for the urgency of the issue.
As The National reported in the weekend, doctors say there is a lack of a formal system for reporting cases they see of children with signs of abuse or neglect. "We report to the police and that's basically the end of it," says Dr Yasser Nakhlawi, chair of the paediatrics department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. "We don't hear back."
To be sure, reports of child abuse have increased over the past few years, in part because the public is less reluctant than before to report such cases. But many of these cases come through parental disputes over custody rights, or when the case is extreme or when it involves a stranger. Still, child abuse is an under-reported issue.
Reasons for this are varied, but ultimately linked to questions of police oversight and a legal grey area. For one, how can authorities curb such cases without unwelcome intrusion into families? And what constitutes abuse? Many parents believe it is their Sharia-mandated right to discipline their children through corporal punishments. How about baby sitters or even teachers? These unanswered questions have serious legal implications, with police or prosecutors often dismissing some cases as unworthy of further investigation or legal action.
That is why a uniform, federal law is urgently needed to answer these questions. The law must establish clear channels of reporting abuse cases and ensure cases are properly investigated and prosecuted. The law must be combined with efforts to deal with cultural or religious misconceptions that sanction domestic abuse.
A draft law addressing some of these concerns has been in circulation; the Federal National Council may want to take up this draft for debate quickly. Much remains to be done to protect children from abuse. But a legal framework law is a critical first step.