x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Wadeema’s tragedy must never reoccur

Cooperation and coordination of each member of the community are key to protecting children

Wadeema’s Law might have been renamed to become the Child Rights Law, but what remains unaltered is the change in UAE society prompted by the torture and murder of this eight-year-old Emirati girl at the hands of her father and his girlfriend. This was a crime that shook a nation, prompting not just the UAE’s first comprehensive child-protection law but also a significant change in community attitudes about where the boundaries of responsibility lie between the family and the state.

The proposed law will give the authorities new powers to ensure the protection of all children in the UAE, Emirati and expatriate alike. As Mariam Al Roumi, the Minister of Social Affairs, pointed out: “Every child coming off a plane has rights in the UAE.” The question now is how these new powers will be utilised, and specifically in the most significant reform, cases where the authorities are empowered to remove a child from its family if it is suspected of being in imminent danger. The law considers safety from both a physical and psychological viewpoint.

In a conservative society like the UAE, families have traditionally had almost complete control over how children are raised and the state has been loathe to intervene, in part because to do so would bring shame to the family. In almost all cases, this works well and children grow up safe and well adjusted, but the tragic case of Wadeema demonstrated that there are times when the authorities have a responsibility to intervene. Accepting this is the major change to UAE society caused by her death.

This poses a second and more crucial question: how to use the law? The most likely place in which abuse will be detected is at school and in medical clinics. Teachers and clinicians need to be aware of the signs of physical or psychological abuse and bring them to the attention of authorities. The government has already started programmes whereby at least two members of staff at every nursery will be required to undergo training in how to identify signs of abuse. Another part of the answer lies in creating child protection units, backed by legal powers, that will be able to enter private homes to collect evidence when they are alerted to potential abuse.

The new law will inevitably take time to settle in. But the overall goal has to remain: what happened to Wadeema must never happen again.