x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Dubai Foundation gets its own answers to child abuse

Troubled the by lack of child-abuse statistics, Dubai Foundation for Women and Children decides to gain first-hand data by surveying 3,000 pupils around the Emirates

Dr Mona Al Bahar of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which is collating the results of a survey of 3,000 pupils on child maltreatment.
Dr Mona Al Bahar of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which is collating the results of a survey of 3,000 pupils on child maltreatment.

DUBAI // Three thousand pupils have completed the country's first nationwide survey about violence against children.

Staff at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children plan to start analysing the data this summer, said Dr Mona Al Bahar, the foundation's assistant director for care and rehabilitation.

"We keep talking about it but nobody actually goes to the field and explores this issue," Dr Al Bahar said.

"To what extent does it happen? Is it a problem or is it a phenomenon? If it is a problem, is it more verbal abuse or more sexual abuse? And then, of course, we will track the causes of this."

Extreme cases of child abuse, such as the recent story of an eight-year-old Emirati girl who was allegedly tortured and killed by her father, have drawn the attention of the nation.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and the Ruler of Dubai, visited the girl's surviving sister in hospital.

Local statistics on child maltreatment are scarce.

"There isn't anything concrete and there isn't a system in place, so basically there isn't any research done except, of course, on a theory basis," said Anita Akkawi, who studied child protection for her master's thesis at Dubai School of Government.

Sheikh Mohammed this month ordered the drafting of a federal law for a child-protection system. Statistics are essential for its success, Ms Akkawi said.

"You need to know the prevalence of abuse and to what extent it is," she said. "And based on that, the decision-makers can have a better understanding of the urgency and the spread of the issue."

The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children used funding from the Emirates Foundation and other organisations to conduct the survey, aimed at pupils in government schools.

The Arabic document was adapted from a survey developed by the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

"We modified the whole survey to fit within the cultural context of the UAE," Dr Al Bahar said.

The survey asked pupils about emotional, physical and sexual abuse. If a pupil identified themselves as a victim, the survey asked about the abuser.

It also asked them about their family's situation, "if there is domestic violence, if there is a problem with alcoholism or drug addiction", Dr Al Bahar said.

Some questions were modified for cultural reasons.

"Some of the words like, 'did you get sexually abused by your parents,' we don't want," Dr Al Bahar said.

"This is a sensitive question so we changed to more, 'did somebody touch your body and your private things,' for example, in a way the student can understand but at the same time it will not culturally annoy the parents or annoy the teachers."

The foundation conducted a pilot programme in September last year to determine if children understood the survey.

"Only two questions we needed to make easier for the students," Dr Al Bahar said.

About 15 social workers travelled to schools in every emirate. It took about three months to survey 3,000 pupils aged between 6 and 18.

"It is a written survey, a standardised survey, but it is implemented face to face," Dr Al Bahar said.

She said she hoped to announce the results in September.

"If we discover it is a phenomenon, we have to design programmes and policies to combat this," Dr Al Bahar said.

The UAE should not wait to address child maltreatment, said Dr Leena Amiri, a child psychiatrist.

"We should know and agree at a baseline that it exists," she said. "Whether we have the data or not is secondary. The data is there to reinforce the message and direct us to which things we should be looking at and focusing on more."

Dr Amiri lamented that animal rights received attention before children's rights.

"People witness animals being abused," she said. "Kids, they are abused in the house.

"It took a long time for people to even identify as it is in the house and is a private matter. But it is not a private matter when people get hurt."

vnereim@thenational.ae