x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Social-work research granted Dh1m

Associate professor leads the charge with studies on breast cancer and Emirati women, and the effects of expat domestics on national children.

Associate professor leads the charge with studies on breast cancer and Emirati women, and the effects of expat domestics on national children. Above, Dr Shadi Martin, centre, with Heather Baker, left, and Dr Shamma Al Falasi, discuss their research project on Emirati women and breast cancer at UAE University.
Associate professor leads the charge with studies on breast cancer and Emirati women, and the effects of expat domestics on national children. Above, Dr Shadi Martin, centre, with Heather Baker, left, and Dr Shamma Al Falasi, discuss their research project on Emirati women and breast cancer at UAE University.

AL AIN // An associate professor at UAE University is trying to raise the profile of social-work research in line with recent government direction, and has won Dh1 million in grants to examine issues affecting Emiratis.

Until now, social policy has been given far less priority than areas such as medical science and engineering.

But Dr Shadi Martin, the university's head of social-work research, has made great inroads since joining a year ago.

Dr Martin has won a Dh750,000 grant from the university for a three-year project on breast cancer screening, which she hopes will raise awareness of the importance of self-examination and regular check-ups.

While working on her PhD in social work in Utah, the US, she studied Iranian immigrants' attitudes to visiting doctors, research she hopes will provide insight for her work in the Emirates.

Dr Martin said taboos, such as concern that the disease might affect a woman's chances of marriage or bring shame on her family, had a huge influence on how likely she was to seek screening.

"Here I'm interested in how women make decisions about screening, whether or not they go in for screening, reasons why women may or may not go for screening, and what interventions we can have to encourage earlier screening and ultimately raising the survival rate," she said.

"Women aren't getting screened until they start to feel pain and by that time it can be too late."

In the UAE, the average age for breast cancer diagnosis is about 40 or 45, compared with 50 or 55 in countries such as the US.

This means it is important that women know the risks at a younger age. Breast cancer accounts for about 37 per cent of all UAE cancer cases.

Emirati students at UAE University will help Dr Martin with in-depth interviews.

"It's important that I have native speakers and there's that cultural connection and rapport when they conduct the interviews," she said.

She plans to involve about 15 current and former breast cancer patients, aged 40 and above, in the research.

Dr Martin said she hoped these women would eventually become "ambassadors", who could reach out to other Emirati women and girls in schools and universities, tell their stories in their own words and teach them the importance of self-examination.

"If we diagnose early, recovery is as high as 90 per cent," she said.

Reem Mohammed, 23, a final-year student, is helping with the research but said she recognised there was much to be done.

"Women are afraid to get screened and culturally they are nervous as it's seen as something very personal," Ms Mohammed said.

Educating women that the disease can be overcome is a big hurdle, but she hopes that being Emirati will help to build the women's trust.

"I hope it will make more women aware of the help that is out there," Ms Mohammed said.

For her second project, Dr Martin has been given a Dh250,000 grant from the Federal Demographics Council, a government body that incorporates the former Emiratisation Council, for a year-long project exploring the influence of expatriate domestic workers on the physical, emotional and behavioural well-being of Emirati children.

"A focus on Emirati children is of national interest," said Dr Martin.

She will work alongside Dr Shamma Al Falasi, an Emirati, and with national students who will help collect data from parents, housemaids, children, teachers and paediatricians.

Social policy is slowly being recognised as a national priority. Last week the National Research Foundation (NRF), the federal funding body, announced studies into areas such as the aspirations of young Emiratis and their experiences of the justice system.

The foundation's new Emirati director, Dr Hussam Al Ulama, said social policy should be a priority.

"Decision makers can't take decisions within society without this kind of research," Dr Al Ulama said. "Political, social and economic - it's vital to our society."

Prof Rory Hume, the provost of UAE University, said: "We are doing what we can with our limited internal research funds to support more studies into social issues.

"It's great that other agencies like the NRF and the Marriage Fund are also willing to work with us and support their work."

mswan@thenational.ae