x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

UAE sensitivities 'need to be addressed' in child laws

As the Government finalises legislation to devise a system for child-abuse cases, experts say policymakers should carefully consider local culture.

Dubai attorney general Essam Al Humaidan speaks at a press conference with the Dubai Police for the case of a Dubai-based father accused of torturing his daughter. With him is Khalifa Bin Deemas, advocate general.
Dubai attorney general Essam Al Humaidan speaks at a press conference with the Dubai Police for the case of a Dubai-based father accused of torturing his daughter. With him is Khalifa Bin Deemas, advocate general.

DUBAI // Mira is only seven years old. But when her father was accused of torturing her sister to death, the young Emirati was thrust into the spotlight.

Her photograph and family name were published online.

The attention has left the child psychiatrist Leena Amiri worried for Mira's future.

"This girl is going to get married one day …" said Dr Amiri, who is Emirati. "Once they know this is the same girl, they will have a lot of assumptions - that she is psychologically scarred, that she will not do well. She is stigmatised."

As the Government finalises legislation to devise a system for child-abuse cases, experts say policymakers should carefully consider local culture, including the importance of reputation and the power of shame.

"The level of privacy would need to be even more in this part of the world," Dr Amiri said, adding the UAE could not copy the West.

"We should learn from what the West has done, definitely. But then we need to actually custom-make something for us that will work for our culture and sensitivities."

Those sensitivities dictate that Emiratis must be in charge of the process, said Sanjana Bhardwaj, a child-protection consultant and an instructor at Zayed University.

"I think when you bring an alien concept it doesn't last," Ms Bhardwaj said. "So definitely, we have to keep the culture in mind."

Dubai Police arrested Mira's father, HS, 29, last month, along with his girlfriend. He is accused of torturing Mira, torture that led to the death of her sister Wadeema, 8, and burying her body in the desert without a proper permit.

The Ministry of Social Affairs began to develop a child-rights law in 2008 and more recently, the Ministry of Interior's higher committee for child protection drafted its law.

The drafts were awaiting government approval when Wadeema died. After hearing of the case, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and the Ruler of Dubai, told policymakers to speed up the process.

"I'm extremely happy with the way things are moving," said Anita Akkawi, who studied child protection for her master's at Dubai School of Government. "I just hope things escalate and take the right path.

"In diverse communities such as the UAE, clashes arise due to cultural differences in child upbringing," she added.

Another issue is how to report cases. In the West, neighbours or teachers often come forward.

"But in our culture, where people have extended roots here and they know each other … that will be a challenge," Dr Amiri said.

Other problems arise at the stage when authorities would intervene.

"Government intervention is a big problem," Ms Akkawi said. "They can't accept that somebody from the authorities would come and take the child away."

The question of what happens to a child who is in danger at home is crucial, Dr Amiri said.

Sending the child to live with relatives - called "kinship care" in the West - is more culturally acceptable than foster care or placement in an orphanage.

In 2009, Dr Amiri worked with a girl in Abu Dhabi whose parents were jailed for severely abusing her. She was sent to live with her father's mother, "a loving grandmother".

"But this same grandmother was so upset with the daughter, because she was the reason her son was put in prison.

"Despite that, she was kept with this grandmother."

Mira was sent to the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children for rehabilitation. In time, the exposure could haunt her, experts warn.

"Reputation is very important," Dr Amiri said. "People will track you and track your past.

"And when it comes to marriage, people will ask."

vnereim@thenational.ae