x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Plight of women grabs official attention

Call to radio show by woman in need opens debate on how to help

The case of a single Emirati woman forced to fall back on charity has drawn the attention of ministries, experts and an FNC member.

This month "Umm Rashid", an Emirati housemaid from Dubai, resorted to calling a radio programme to tell of the hardships she had endured.

She swore on air she "would never again call charities, if they were the last help I can get", after her experience with them.

"Did the sheikhs specify that only divorced and widows can get help?" Umm Rashid asked the presenter. "Or only people of certain age groups to get help?"

Her experience, she said, had been that the first question asked by charities was about her marital status.

"They say, 'you are not divorced nor are you widowed for us to help you'," Umm Rashid said. "Some say I have to be 40 to get help. I don't think sheikhs said this.

"I am local, I have the nationality, I work as a maid in an expatriate's house and I'm happy with my work because work is an honour."

But she said her wages were not enough to live on.

After Umm Rashid's call, the radio station said ministries - it did not specify which - and the Department of Presidential Affairs had contacted her to provide aid.

Divorced women have also complained that they struggle to survive.

Layla Al Ameri, a mother of five, is divorced and disabled. She receives Dh3,000 from the Red Crescent's widows and divorcees' fund to support herself and her five children.

Ms Al Ameri's case, and others like it, has provoked much debate on Twitter in recent weeks, catching the attention of at least one newly elected member of the FNC.

Rashad Bukhash, a member from Dubai, said such "painful" cases needed thorough investigation.

"There should be help for anyone who needs it. A monthly income sufficient for the family's needs should be given to her," Mr Bukhash said.

Dr Rima Al Sabban, an associate professor of sociology at Zayed University, said although such cases were rare they were to be expected in a country that is changing as rapidly as the UAE.

"With the move from previous traditional life to modernity, we see a decrease in marriage and women tend to move to singlehood for so many reasons," Dr Al Sabban said. "Most are employed, or they have status - they do not have an issue."

She said that even as the nuclear family became more prominent, the extended family remained a safety net for most single women. When that failed, she said, the Government should step in.

"These are rare cases … you can count them on your fingers because we still have family support," Dr Al Sabban said.

But she said she feared modern trends meant the numbers were likely to increase.

"If we have these cases it is a sign that agencies are not doing their job to reach out to them," Dr Al Sabban said.

"They should not wait for these issues to come out in media. They should not wait for people to come to them; rather, they should go to people."

Single women are able to receive help from the Ministry of Social Affairs but the amount is "very minimal", she said, and more support should be made available for women whose hardship was not the result of divorce or being widowed.

Dr May Al Dabbagh, the director of the gender and public policy programme at the Dubai School of Government, said policies were designed with the "outdated assumption" that women would have a man to support them.

"In the GCC, as is the case in many other places, you can find evidence of gendered practices which systematically exclude certain categories of society based on their gender," Dr Al Dabbagh said.

"What this case illuminates is the prevalence of the assumption that a male guardian is responsible for taking care of a woman, especially a single woman.

That, she said, meant women would "always need to rely on someone to be an intermediary for them, which results in furthering their disadvantage".

"A proper review of gendered policies and practices, whether in government organisations or non-governmental ones such as charities, will allow these organisations to reach their goals more efficiently," Dr Al Dabbagh said.

"It will enable them to reach a wider group of people who are in need of help and support."

Mr Bukhash said the matter would be discussed by the FNC.

"It is important to discuss these issues, especially ones that affect citizens," he said.

osalem@thenational.ae