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Child Protection: The law is only a beginning

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Fatima Sultan

Senior Resident Fellow- Public Policy

Tag: Dubai Public Opinion Security UAE
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In April 2013, a news story about the rape of a seven year old in a private school kitchen by a school worker attracted the attention of the local media amid a visible surge in reporting on abuse stories and anticipation of an all-inclusive child protection law in the United Arab Emirates that had been named after Wadima, a child who had been tortured to death by her father.  This story has not lead to a public outcry as the story of Wadima, but it has aroused fears over childrens safety at schools and other institutions. Failure of supervision at this private school has revealed some major issues of accountability and community engagement. 
Most children in the UAE, including Emiratis, go to private schools and yet private schools obligation to Ministry laws varies.   It seems hard to rely on internal reporting in private schools when staff changes seem to be the norm, and the cleaning crew for instance is mostly outsourced and less likely to have gone through normal school vetting processes. 
The onus may rest on the community to spread awareness, identify possible victims, and report concerns, but for any efforts to work, higher level involvement is inevitable.  This story has called attention to what has to be done to improve accountability among staff and management in schools and other institutions. Child protection law should soon see the light and it would be interesting to observe how it would affect educational institutions perspectives and policies on their roles in ensuring child protection and safety. 
The next step for the government seems to be in identifying the responsibilities of all the entities that provide service to children, such as nurseries, schools, educational institutes, and foster homes, and providing guidelines and official follow-up to ensure the efficiency of child security measures and their compliance with the different components of the concept.  This may include security on the premises, equipment safety, emergency plans, awareness programs, and training.  It has been reported that the law would include a review of building requirements for windows and balconies in residential buildings to prevent fatal accidents of children falling off.  Authorities could consider extending the concept to educational institutes licensing requirements, including the safety of the building and equipment, and active emergency plans.
 It is unclear so far if there is a need for creating a new entity that would set and monitor adherence to child security guidelines .  However, it might be useful to begin identifying the possible applications of the child protection law on educational institutions and considering the requirements for them to play that role.  These may include creating multi-agency council and in-school programs, developing leaderships both inside schools and in education zones, and setting policies and standards for child safety.  Parent councils have major potential in supporting any programs that schools may run in that regard, whether through volunteering, reporting concerns, or raising the childrens awareness.
In the United Kingdom, a story similar to Wadimas lead to the application of a comprehensive work plan entailing that all schools and entities offering services to children to ensure best practices in safeguarding children in general.  The effectiveness of this work plan is considered one of the criteria that school assessments and inspections emphasize, including safer recruitment policies, which include vetting and training [1].
Safer recruitment in schools might prove to be challenging to child protection policies as it may require disclosure of the identities of former child offenders, which could raise alarm in the UAE society, which puts so much emphasis on reputation.  It might still be possible to carry this out if the authorities adopt a mechanism that would allow for checking the backgrounds of job seekers within a tight loop that prevents the names from being revealed publicly.
UAE schools tend to rely on agencies to provide teaching staff from different countries and outsource cleaning jobs, which raises major questions about the level of commitment to checking the background of new employees.  That these entities bear the responsibility for hiring suitable people to work with or within the school community is more likely to increase their commitment to the law than when the child offender bears it alone.

Fatma Al Owais is a Senior Researcher at bhuth.



[1] Office for Standards of Education, 2011

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