The UAE is trying to ensure that women retain a role in the workforce even when they have children. At the workplace nursery, Laura Collins finds there's a difference between ambition and reality.
Anxious working mums warm to pioneering nursery
Each day the routine in this particular section of the Dubai Customs Operation Headquarters is the same. After registration at 7.30am, those present unite for the national anthem and verses from the Quran. Next is a rousing chorus of "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes".
It is two years since Dubai Customs opened the door to its workplace childcare centre and became the first government department to convert federal legislative ambition into reality.
Today, 32 children between one month and four years of age spend their days here while their mothers and fathers work in the sprawl of offices above. Save the odd tantrum and the occasional refusal to eat the cucumber pieces that constitute the salad element in the day's nutritionally balanced lunch, it is all remarkably calm.
Each month the children study a different theme. This month it is books; next, it will be zoo animals. The plan for the year is plotted month by month on a wall chart, as are the twice-weekly visits from a nurse and the monthly doctor's consultation. Next to their room is one set aside for breastfeeding mothers; it is softly lit, simple but comfortable.
It all seems so established, so eminently normal, that it belies just what it has taken to reach this point: the parental anxieties and practical difficulties overcome, the extent to which the women who run the centre are pioneers and the leap of faith required of those who entrust their children to its care.
As the centre's manager, Maryam Shamsi, formerly a senior customs officer, explains: "What we are doing here is setting a benchmark."
Naturally, there were some difficulties at first. "Mothers came two, three, four times a day because perhaps they felt unsure that their children are safe. But they come and the children cannot settle.
"In the end I had to send an e-mail saying, 'Please don't come unless we call; your child is safe.' Now they see that their child is happy when they leave and happy when they come to take him home."
Dubai Customs's finance officer, Fatima Salem, recalls all too well the initial heart-tug of leaving her three-year-old daughter, Sheikha, at the centre.
"It was very difficult," she admits. "I was afraid. When she cries, it is hard. But when anything happens I can come. I see how she has grown. Months have passed and now it's like heaven."
For Hiba Hamzih, the department's media relations officer, the birth of the nursery could not have been more timely. "I was pregnant with my first child. My family is in Lebanon and I didn't know what I would do," she said.
"It is a big problem because you are happy you are pregnant, but you are afraid. I am happy in my work and I wondered what the next step would be."
Leaving her son, Nabil, in the centre was not easy initially. But Hiba said she had no choice. She has to work.
It isn't a decision she regrets any more than Asma Answar, an auditor, regrets hers to place her daughter, Ayisha, in the nursery when, a few months ago, childcare arrangements that had allowed her to keep Ayisha at home fell through.
"My husband wasn't sure and I wasn't," she says. "But I heard from my colleague that her child was happy. I cannot quit my job and for me, right now, this is the best option."
The strain of combining the demands of family life with those of a career is not unique to women in the UAE. The emotions and logistics with which Fatima, Hiba, Asma and many others wrestle will chime with thousands of working mothers the world over.
But, from maternity leave allowances to childcare provision, reduced retirement ages and flexible working practices for women, it is a pull being felt particularly keenly and an issue being debated with particular vigour, here right now. Barely a day passes without that fact being reflected in the news or letters pages of this newspaper.
Mona al Bahar, the director of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children and a respected authority on empowerment, has no doubt why: "The UAE is a society that is growing very fast, with great demographic change.
"Everybody thinks that before women were just sitting at home, not working. But that's not true. The Emirati women were in the workforce from day one of history."
From helping with fishing, to selling artwork, taking goods to market, making perfume and plaiting hair in the elaborate traditional style, women were integral to the cultural, political and economic life of their community. Motherhood was no barrier to this.
The debate now - the very notion of empowerment played out in today's UAE - is not about bringing women into society. It is about taking measures to ensure that, on becoming mothers, they are not excluded from the society to which they have long been so central.
She explains: "Today, society is more institutionalised. In many families both men and women must work. Families are smaller - the couple may not live in the same emirate as their parents - or the grandmother and aunts might still work so the extended family is no longer always there.
"Work is more organised and more separate from home. But you cannot separate a woman from her family whether she is a daughter, a wife or a mother."
Workplace nurseries are a compromise and many women are advocating extending maternity leave, she said.
The UAE may rank first among Arab states when it comes to narrowing the gender gap, but the federal government allowance - two months' paid leave with the option of a further 100 days unpaid and an hour a day for breastfeeding on return to work - is meagre by international standards.
Current UK rules, for example, give a woman up to a full year off - six weeks paid at up to 90 per cent of the mother's average pay, followed by 33 weeks of statutory maternity pay. Fathers may take two consecutive weeks of statutory paid paternity leave.
Part of the problem, Amal al Qubaisi, a member of the Federal National Council, said when she addressed the FNC in July, is that when the law was drawn up,"no women's organisations were consulted".
She added: "Considering that 53 per cent of the federal organisation's workforce is women, it doesn't seem right."
Her appeal for the law to be reviewed was answered. She is now chairwoman of the committee whose task it is, among other things, to conduct that review.
A fellow committee member, the chief executive of the Dubai Women Establishment (DWE), Shamsa Saleh, says: "In the case of maternity policy, there are some areas that are not clearly covered. For example, what if the woman has a premature child? What if she has a handicapped child?
"These questions are not answered yet because we are only now asking them. But what is good is that the support [for the notion of women working] is already there. It is the experience that is not.
"I know what difference this can make. I was pregnant with my first child when I started looking at this and I thought two months' leave was plenty of time. Then I had my son and two months felt like two weeks."
In addition the treatment of working mothers that is spelt out by law is not fully borne out in practice. Finding out why, with a view to recommending policy aimed at bridging that gap, was a central founding principle of the DWE in 2008.
Since 2006 it has been a legal requirement that government departments and public institutions with 50 or more female employees and 20 or more children under the age of four must provide childcare.
Yet when the DWE was founded in February 2008 it was clear that this legal statute had made little to no practical impact. All the good intentions in the world count as nothing without actions to back them up.
Mrs Saleh and her team began by asking all 26 government departments in Dubai why. Why hadn't those good intentions borne fruit?
It quickly transpired that there were two major obstacles.
Mrs Saleh recalls, "The first was the structure of some of the buildings. They were built a long time ago and nobody was thinking to meet the specifications for a childcare centre, which must be on the ground floor or ground plus one, have proper emergency exit and have outdoor space. The second was the know-how. Most of them did not have it. So we set out to solve that problem."
Under the banner of the National Child Care Project (NCCP), Mrs Saleh and her colleagues interviewed employers and employees, consulted child psychologists, sociologists, education experts and nutritionists.
They made a careful study of international standards, tailoring them to UAE needs. Local climate, for example, was a consideration when it came to stipulating the time a child could spend outdoors and during which months.
They set down the level of education that the carers and supervisors must attain; the languages - Arabic and English - they must speak; and, though the nurseries would be open to all nationalities of children, they stressed the importance of recruiting Emiratis as well as expatriate carers. After all, to some extent, these nurseries would have to serve as an extended family of sorts to Emirati couples no longer furnished with that luxury.
In 2009 the DWE published the National Child Care Standards and an operational guide for the day-to-day running of a workplace nursery, two publications that may well define child care across the UAE and further.
Mrs Saleh explains: "Dubai Customs was our pilot nursery. Now we have one at Dewa and also at RTA.
"Last year we got a request from the [Department of the President's Affairs] in Abu Dhabi to consult on childcare standards. Now we have almost done the training of the staff and it's in the final stages of furnishing and decorating. The northern Emirates have come to us, too. A few months back we got a request from the Jordan Ministry of Social Development to consult with them. We have given them all of our research and experiences and costing and we are working out how to consult with them more."
Mrs Saleh, though justifiably proud of the NCCP's achievements, is cautious when it comes to measuring the project's success.
"We will see in a generation's time," she says. "How these children grow in health and education and how it will be for them when they come to have family and work."
Feedback from the two pilot projects shows increased worker productivity - with children on site, the average 20 minutes a day mothers admitted to spending on the phone checking their children's welfare have been eradicated. And where staff once struggled to convince parents that bringing their children to work was preferable to leaving them at home - even if that meant in the charge of unqualified housemaids - today Dubai Customs nursery has a waiting list 30 deep.
To date, 161 federal and local government departments across the UAE have expressed an interest in establishing a similar programme.
But there is still a long way to go. Mrs Saleh says: "It's not a matter of opening 20 or 30 childcare centres. It's a matter of creating awareness and building a whole industry of child care."
To some people, no third-party child care, however good, can match that of a mother, at home, occupied solely with meeting the needs of her family. But that ideal is no longer possible for all. The extent to which work/life balance has entered the daily discourse in the UAE comes as a recognition of this reality, however imperfect, however complex.
According to Dr al Bahar: "The UAE government plays a big role in empowering women. Women have reached an advanced decision-making level. With children if we get a good start we get a good end."
In many ways the current maternity leave review, the NCCP's rippling influence, and the legislative will to find a way amount only to a start. But it is a good one.
Maternity leave around the world
This information is taken from the United Nations Statistics Division and was updated in December 2010. The international standard as recognised by the International Labour Organisation is 14 weeks.
Amount of leave
Max pay %
17 or 18 weeks
50 or 100%
50 or 100%