Marten Youssef

ABU DHABI // Abused or neglected children could be taken from their parents and placed in foster homes, under a law being drawn up by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The Child Rights Act, a draft copy of which was given to The National by the ministry yesterday, is due to go before the Federal National Council, where it will be subject to debate and amendment. It will then require the President’s approval to become law.

The law follows the case of a nine-year-old girl who was severely beaten by her parents. Her father and stepmother were sentenced on Sunday to 10 years in prison and fined Dh160,000 (US$44,000) for abusing her. The law would create a foster care system, allowing children to be seized if “unlivable conditions” were evident and put into the protection of a state body, with relatives or into a foster home.

It would also allow parents to be criminally prosecuted for child neglect and abuse. There are currently no specific criminal child abuse laws.

The draft asserts the duty of parents and others caring for children to ensure they “receive the proper upbringing, education and care required to ensure normal growth and development”.

The proposed law also gives the state legal responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of children.

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The law sets steep penalties, ranging from Dh2,000 to Dh10,000, for those who know of children being abused but fail to report it, with specific reference to housemaids and spouses who turn a blind eye.

Although the draft sets out detailed definitions of rights and duties with regard to children, in its current form it does not include provision for enforcing them. These specifics, including any new bodies to be set up, could be added during the FNC debate stage.

The draft covers all children, “without discrimination based on sex, colour, religion, nationality, language, social status, wealth, disability, birth or parents or any other type of discrimination”.

While it defines a child as being under the age of 10, it sets a legal minimum age of five for child labour. The current UAE Labour Law, however, prohibits those under 15 from working without parental consent and a doctor’s certificate.

Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund, regards five as the minimum age for any kind of child labour. Between the ages of five and 11 it considers more than an hour a week of commercial work, or 28 hours of domestic work, unacceptable; between the ages of 12 and 14 it accepts up to 14 hours of commercial work.

Ahlam al Lamki, head of the research department at the General Women’s Union in Abu Dhabi, said: “As long as it [removing a child from its parents] is in the interest of the child then it’s OK.

“It’s not easy to take the decision to take a kid from its family and put it in foster care, because you have to look at the side-effects of that.

“Implementing that should be a last resort and the people making the decisions should really think about the effects.”

Esmaeil Ibrahim, Gulf programme officer at Unicef, described the draft as a step in the right direction.

“The law shows the seriousness of the UAE’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” he said. “This law covers all matters that children face, from neglect to abuse, and brings those that commit these crimes to account.

“It’s a very positive step forward and Unicef is very pleased with the commitment of the UAE Government in working on this law.

“It is essential that countries have specific laws for children to ensure their protection.”

He said the Ministry of Social Affairs had consulted Unicef about the law. “The Unicef Gulf office has been very aware of the law and has been part of the discussions.

“We are just waiting to see the final draft so we can advise on whether it comes up to standard. From what we have seen so far there are no issues.

“This puts the UAE a step ahead of the rest of the region.” Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar have “started considering” child protection legislation but have yet to implement anything, he said.

The draft contains provisions covering children with special needs, calling on the Government to ensure that they receive care in all areas, including education, health and vocational rehabilitation.

While the law reiterates other rights already given to children in existing laws and treaties signed by the UAE, it would be the first comprehensive legal document dedicated to the rights of the children.

In 2001, the committee on the rights of the child at the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, asked the UAE to pass laws to protect children. Eight years later, the draft law is the first fruit of that request.
Additional reporting by Loveday Morris