x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Report reveals needs of UAE's children

Wide-ranging study of youths records improvements made in child mortality rate and education, but cite troubling trends in obesity, the consequences of divorce and delinquency.

Well-defined laws are needed to protect young people, according to the most detailed study yet of the state of the nation's children.

The research, supervised by Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, head of the General Women's Union, made an in-depth study of the condition of children here, with regards to health, education and child protection.

Analysis of the Situation of Children in the United Arab Emirates in 2009/2010, published last week, found dramatic improvements in the provision for children: a 1990s figure of 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 children under five, for example, is now set to drop to 4.8 per 1,000 by 2015.

Education is also much better than in the past, with almost every child attending school - compared with the situation just three decades ago, when 90 per cent were not. The illiteracy rate has declined to about one in 20, with the majority of illiterate 15 to 19-year-old teenagers being expatriates.

The report also found that campaigns to promote healthy living were beginning to have an effect on the choices of children and parents, although it did not provide figures.

However, the report noted that obesity, in particular, is still alarmingly high. In 2005, three-quarters of schoolchildren (74 per cent) were obese or overweight.

The area of most concern was the rise in juvenile delinquency, for which the report's authors put the blame squarely on the country's high divorce rate.

They called for measures to address tension within families.

Although the UAE constitution states the family is the foundation of society, it does not "explicitly and directly" address child protection, the report found.

Under the Unicef Child Protection Agreement, signed by the UAE in 1972, special care should be given to children who are deprived of family care, those who are handicapped, suffering from any kind of abuse, and children committing crimes or using drugs.

The study found that children were, in fact committing an "alarming" number of crimes.

In Abu Dhabi emirate, children committed 853 crimes in 2008, with most young offenders aged between 14 and 18. While most were theft or traffic offences, there were 40 cases of rape, 32 of consensual sex and seven extramarital pregnancies.

Most young offenders were UAE nationals, and the report warns that the cases it found may just be the tip of the iceberg.

"There could be others that we are not aware of," it states, pointing to the lack of reliable, central statistics on arrests or convictions.

The issue of juvenile delinquency has been a concern for some time. "In general, there has been an increase in such cases," said Hamad al Midfa, a member of the Federal National Council from Sharjah. "People can see this through media and news reports."

Mr al Midfa called this summer for CCTV cameras to be installed in government schools to protect against violence and vandalism. While he said most students were well behaved, "there are a few ... who can cause harm to others".

Officials have said many problems stem from the home environment, with divorce causing particular difficulties. The divorce rate in the UAE stands at about 40 per cent, and is highest among couples with an Emirati husband and an expatriate wife. The study noted that some of these families can suffer from more violence and family friction than others.

Parents often spent long periods away from each other and their children, causing problems with the marriage and leaving their children in the care of maids. The neglect, it said, can come from working mothers and fathers who are away travelling for extended periods. "Neglect causes many psychological problems," said Dr Fadwa al Mughairbi, the head of psychology and counselling at UAE University. "You are unable to connect, and you would not have normal social interaction, and could suffer from anxiety disorders. Neglected kids use violent behaviour to seek attention, even if it is negative attention."

The study found that more than nine per cent of Emirati children do not go to secondary school. Many had been found to be working, despite a 2009 law that forbids child labour. In 2008, a survey found that 7.1 per cent of children between the ages of 15 and 19 were working. Most were Emirati, but one in 10 expatriate children were also in work.

The report put that down to poverty in sections of Emirati society.

Couples also had to contend with interfering extended families in their family problems.

"In the past, [the extended family] used to be a pillar for a marriage to keep it going, but what is happening today is that couples are getting everyone involved and listening to too many different opinions," Dr al Mughairbi said.

The study found many cases of divorcing fathers withholding maintenance and called for an easier way for mothers to get financial support rather than the often "humiliating" experience of court.

Children can also be caught in between divorcing parents. "The parents use them sometimes to get back at each other," said Dr Isis Badawi, head of psychology at Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre.

Children are the biggest losers in this situation, says the report, calling for laws to help divorced parents share custody.

"Joint custody is very important too so that the child doesn't feel he has to chose between the two parents," said Dr al Mughairbi.

Although it gives few specifics, the report says plans are afoot to address children's political, social, educational and cultural and protection rights. "This shows the country's concern for all children, and their right to life," it states.