x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An enforceable set of laws against child abuse is essential

The violent death of a four-year-old boy at a Dubai mosque last March led to a public service campaign aimed at reducing instances of child abuse nationwide. Why, then, are children in the UAE still being endangered?

The violent death of a four-year-old boy at a Dubai mosque last March made headlines across the Emirates, and led to a public service campaign aimed at reducing instances of child abuse nationwide.

Why, then, are children in the UAE still being endangered by adults? Two researchers at the Dubai School of Government have set out to answer that question. Their findings, which we report on today, examine the many challenges in implementing a national child protection law, from cultural barriers to ineffectual government.

It is not just the heinous cases that make headlines but the scope and frequency of child abuse in the UAE - and elsewhere in the region - that demand attention. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, for instance, estimates that roughly one third of those staying in its shelters are children. And across the Middle East and North Africa, the number of victims is staggering: Unicef says 89 per cent of all the region's young people have fallen victim at least once to physical or psychological punishment.

Violence, of course, begins at home, a point the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has sought to emphasise with a public service campaign. Some of the trouble seems to be in defining abuse, and educating adults in preventing it.

For such advocates as the Dubai Foundation, child abuse is any act that causes "harmful or offensive contact on a child's body", while emotional abuse is more far reaching. But as the researchers found, many in the UAE see a more limited definition of a child's rights, and believe parents should have more leeway in how they discipline their children.

Tough love is certainly a tactic at parents' disposal. But there is a difference between unacceptable violence and forceful scolding. In principle, the Government of Abu Dhabi recognises this, and in 2008, drafted a law to punish those who cross the line. But in practice, efforts to create an enforceable set of national guidelines for the protection of children are languishing. Researchers explain the many reasons for the delay, including a poorly defined Government strategy and a general lack of urgency. Cultural and religious barriers have also made it difficult to convince parents that the Government should have a say in how they raise their children.

These may be genuine concerns, but cannot serve as an excuse to ignore recommendations developed with a child's best interests in mind.