x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A re-evaluation of caring for orphans

The UAE is ahead of other countries in caring for orphans, but there are still too many loopholes through which vulnerable children slip.

After five miscarriages and a divorce, Amal Shehab Ali's chances of having a baby seemed slim until she met a four-month-old girl in a home for abandoned children. Four years later, that girl, named Sheikha, has a family and is gearing up for school this autumn.

Dozens of newborn babies are abandoned each year in the UAE, left near mosques, in the street, outside homes and sometimes even in rubbish skips. The country has laws in place that ensure that orphanages provide for abandoned children's basic needs, including granting them citizenship and free education. Basic needs, however, are not all that a child needs.

Earlier this month, a federal law was passed to replace a patchwork of procedures in different emirates to care for abandoned children, but it still needs to be easier for abandoned children to become part of a family.

Under many interpretations of Sharia law, abandoned children cannot assume a family's name and, by UAE law, only Emiratis can qualify to foster a child. These rules, however, must be examined for their legal implications, from the extension of health insurance to family inheritance.

It is important to recognise that one of the reasons that children are abandoned is out of fear of legal retribution in cases of illegal relationships and sex outside of marriage. Legal impediments must not also be a reason that these children do not find a family.

A family's name, or lack thereof, has social implications. Children can be cared for in fostering relationships similar to adoption, but many children will remain stigmatised by the label "laqeet", a derogatory term that has connotations of lesser worth. If a family chooses to raise a baby, the laws should be tailored to help to minimise this burden.

Adoption has often been the subject of debate among Muslim scholars in light of the changing social dynamics of modern life. Some Islamic countries now allow the practice, including Iraq. The UAE, which prides itself on following more accommodating Islamic interpretations of Sharia, must re-evaluate legal obstacles to full familial and social integration for abandoned babies.

The UAE is ahead of other countries in caring for orphans. Nothing, however, matches the importance of a child's family.