x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Teach children to report child abuse

Gathering data, understanding the extent of the problem and educating children to speak up are important steps in tackling abuse.

From new laws on reporting to tougher penalties for offenders, the UAE is engaged in a full-scale campaign to eradicate the scourge of child abuse and neglect. But as The National reported on Friday, the biggest obstacle remains educating children on what constitutes abuse, and how to report it when it occurs.

Data released by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, the first landmark study on the subject, found that verbal abuse is the most common form of abuse youngsters are subjected to (which is no different from most other countries). More troubling, however, when asked whether children would report abuse if they experienced it, just half said they would. Moreover, 71 per cent of those polled said they didn't know hotlines for victims even existed.

It's important to educate children to speak up when they face any type of abuse - physical, emotional or sexual. But reporting on child abuse cases is a shared responsibility for everyone in society. And on this front, we've all dropped the ball.

Dramatic cases of neglect have inspired action at the highest levels. This issue was addressed in the UAE child-protection draft law that was approved by the federal Cabinet in November. Wadeema's law was named after the eight-year-old Emirati girl who was allegedly tortured - along with her 7-year-old sister - for months. No one reported the abuse until Wadeema was found dead in the desert. The case came as a shock to the nation and drew attention to the lack of child protection systems to prevent such cases from happening. It also highlighted the importance of reporting cases of abuse.

The new law that awaits review by the FNC and final approval by the UAE president will allow social workers to intervene by visiting families regularly, offer services and even remove children from their homes in severe cases. Certainly this power would need to be used wisely, and sparingly; every effort must be made to keep families together.

The best way to do that is to gather as much data on the prevalence of abuse in our society. The Dubai women and children's foundation recorded detailed responses from nearly 3,000 students between 10 and 18 at government schools in Dubai. Other emirates should follow suit, studying attitudes and presenting the results.

Protecting children is a shared responsibility, one that starts with understanding the extent of the problem.