x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Children hold court at the FNC

Sixty youngsters take chance to quiz top officials on legal, social and education issues in a "mock FNC" session.

Children are treated to a glimpse of life as an FNC member during the Sharjah Children's Congress in Abu Dhabi yesterday. Ravindranath K / The National
Children are treated to a glimpse of life as an FNC member during the Sharjah Children's Congress in Abu Dhabi yesterday. Ravindranath K / The National

ABU DHABI // Sixty Emiratis gathered in the Federal National Council building yesterday to discuss issues ranging from discrimination against handicapped students to fighting domestic abuse.

But although they sat in seats assigned to FNC members and questioned top government officials about pressing matters, there was something a little different about this bunch.

All were younger than 15.

The session taking place was the Sharjah Children's Congress's 12th annual meeting. The programme was designed to let the children examine issues surrounding their legal, social and education rights.

"When parents get divorced, will a child be able to choose to live with whom he likes?" one child asked.

"Can children file a legal lawsuit against whoever harms them?" another student asked a Dubai Appeals Court judge.

Dr Khalil Al Ibrahim explained that the law required the child to stay with who "they should stay with, and not with whom they liked", to guarantee the child's benefits.

Regarding children's suitability as witnesses in court, Dr Ibrahim stressed that they should not attend courtrooms because the environment could traumatise them.

"We see children psychologically affected from divorce cases, so imagine if they were to attend murder cases," he said.

He said a child's testimony could be heard only in cases where he or she were the only witness to an abuse or murder. However, the judge would not base a verdict around such testimony but merely take it into account.

"If we start accepting children's testimonies, next thing we know all police investigators and judges will be calling children as witnesses," he added.

Lt Col Faisal Al Shamari, the director of the Ministry of Interior's Child Protection Centre, said the department was looking into providing special measures and procedures for hearing children's testimonies.

Dr Al Ibrahim explained to the children that they could file lawsuits through their guardians. However, if the lawsuit was not in the guardian's interest, then the child should seek other avenues.

Other attendees complained that even though mixing disabled children into mainstream classrooms was a positive move by the Ministry of Education, little was being done to ensure those children were not being discriminated against.

"Some children with special needs get insulted by normal ones. For example, a child whose arm is broken will get beaten by the others because he can't beat them back," one child said.

Sheikha Khuloud Al Qassimi, a Ministry of Education official, said that the ministry was doing what it could to protect disabled children and make sure they had full rights. But, she said, their protection fell under the responsibility of school administrators, who must monitor the situation. Children, she added, needed to report any wrongdoing.

The children also voiced concerns about the growing use of social media, a lack of focus on Arabic and Islamic studies by private schools and the suppression of children's freedom of expression by some parents and teachers.

The two-hour session ended with a list of recommendations, which included: educating families on the negative consequences of divorce, activating special regulations for orphan children to compensate them for the loss of their parents, motivating parents to help children accomplish their goals and creating more positive, educational TV shows for children.