UAE Child Rights Law Contains Controversial Breastfeeding Clause

ينام خالي القلب و ان صابه نعاس و انا و قلبــي بين هايــس و رميــسIn January, the Federal National Council of the United Arab Emirates drafted a law to protect children’s rights. Controversy has arisen over recent months because of a clause that mandates women breastfeed their children, if physically able, for the first two years of their lives. The government hopes to use this clause to raise the rates of breastfeeding as a way to improve child nutrition and health.

This clause has been criticized because it legislates a very personal decision for women, making breastfeeding a legal requirement rather than a choice. For this reason, many consider this to be a question of women’s rights. Additionally, many women cannot breastfeed, while others have difficulty doing so and many more choose to feed their child with formula either entirely or as a supplement to breast milk.

The controversy also stems from the lack of clarity surrounding exactly how the law would be implemented. Would women be sued, punished or imprisoned for failing to breastfeed their children for a full two years? This question remains unanswered and hotly debated.

“Breast milk is very important for a child. In the end of the day we want women to try as much as they can to feed their baby naturally. This is not to say that women who do not are criminals, but they may face disciplinary measures, but definitely not prison,” explained Sultan Al Sammahi, deputy head of the Committee on Health, Labour and Social Affairs for the Federal National Council.

An Emirati lawyer, Ali Al Abadi, interprets the clause’s wording differently, claiming that it can mean if a mother “did not breastfeed the child, is subject to punishment under this bill unless there is a reason why she cannot. But if she has been found to be neglecting this right it would be considered as an offence, even if the law is not intended to punish.”

An additional problem is that women in the UAE have little institutionalized support or  education to facilitate the desired rise in breastfeeding. They face the challenge of trying to breastfeed despite only 45 days of paid maternity leave and little accommodation once they reenter the workplace. Additionally, even if women want to breastfeed, many struggle to do so because without knowing who to turn to for advice or support when encountering difficulties  with low milk supplies, sore nipples, problems with baby latching or infection.

Even international breastfeeding advocates like La Leche League recognize the problems of imposing a law such as this. A spokesman for the group’s UAE chapter declared that “we imagine that this law may be extremely difficult to implement at the current time given a lack of support and information on breastfeeding available to mothers here in the UAE.”

In addition to legislating breastfeeding, the Law on Child Rights aims to protect children from a wide range of abuses including child pornography, physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect. It also sets requirements for meeting basic human rights of food, shelter, healthcare and education.

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Human Traffickers Exploit Syrian Children

DSC_1059In February 2013, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) broke up a ring of child traffickers exploiting refugee children from Syria in Ras Beirut. These arrests called attention to the vulnerability of Syrian children to a variety of abuses. These children are highly vulnerable to trafficking, child marriage, child labor, sexual abuses, illness and death. Additionally, large numbers remain out of school and many have been orphaned as a result of the conflict in Syria.

Many trafficked children either beg or sell goods like tissues and gum on street corners. The Lebanese non-profit organization Basmeh and Zeitooneh estimates that each child can earn as much as $300 each month for their traffickers. Each day, traffickers drive children far from their homes in a van, then deposit them on corners around the city where they work in carefully organized shifts.

Trafficking networks target Syrian children because of their vulnerability. As refugees, these children often lack proper identification and are desperate for money and food. Some of these children are orphans, while other have parents who give their children to traffickers in order to make ends meet. With the number of Syrian refugee children continuing to grow, Lebanon has increasingly been faced with the problems of child trafficking and labor.

“Traffickers think about easy money and how to diminish costs. They don’t have to put in any effort if they invest in their children…The major affected population is Syrian, but you can’t say that other nationalities aren’t vulnerable. Every child coming from bad economic conditions and armed conflict is a potential victim of trafficking,” explained Colonel Elias Asmar, the head of the ISF Moral Protection Department.

When authorities discover trafficking operations, they face the problem of trying to find shelter for the child victims. Lebanon does not have nearly enough shelter programs to handle all of the children in need of support and rehabilitation. Even existing programs struggle with a lack of funding that severely limits the number of spaces available and their ability to provide adequate services including psychotherapy.

Nearly 500,000 Syrian children live as refugees in Lebanon with one in five of these children being under the age of five. Many of these children arrived in Lebanon without adult guardians and continue to live without adequate support and protection.

“Two showed up at the town one day; they were in agony, they were helpless. God knows how they found their way from Syria. They told me that their parents got shot, along with everyone from their family, and they escaped. They are so young, it’s a miracle they are still alive. I did my best to take them in and help them. They are still in shock and are very depressed; they had nightmares and would run out screaming from the room. I don’t know what to do with them except take care of them,” explained a local sheik who assists refugees arriving in Lebanon.

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Women Petition to Gain Rights in Saudi Arabia

saudi arabia abha souqOn International Women’s Day, March 8th, women’s rights activists petitioned the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia to demand an end to the restrictions placed upon women. This development comes just months after the Council rejected a proposal to give women the right to drive. The kingdom severely restricts women’s movements and imposes strict gender segregation due to the country’s highly orthodox interpretation of Islamic law.

“Rights activists have petitioned the Shoura Council on the occasion of International Women’s Day, demanding an end to the absolute authority of men over women… measures to protect rights,” stated the activist Aziza Yousef.

Islam serves as the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with sharia law as the basis for the legal system. The Shura Council functions as a consultative council that interprets the law and advises the King on policy decisions.

Conservative clerics’ interpretations of sharia law have resulted in the restrictions placed upon women in Saudi Arabia, but rights activists argue that they are not in line with the teachings of Islam. Currently, laws govern most aspects of women’s lives, giving men control over their ability to travel, obtain identification, seek medical attention, open bank accounts or engage in many other activities outside the home. Guardianship laws give fathers, brothers and husbands the right to grant or deny the women in their families permission to perform most basic tasks. Additionally, women are prohibited from driving which severely limits their access to public spaces and services.

These laws have proved dangerous to the health and well-being of women. In February, a female student attending university died after paramedics were prevented from helping her because her male guardian was not present to give permission. In a similar situation, a pregnant university situation gave birth to her child without medical attention again because paramedics were denied access. Under strict segregation rules and prohibitions on women’s rights, women cannot seek medical attention, receive treatment or undergo procedures even in extreme emergencies without explicit permission from their male guardian.

Women have gradually been gaining greater rights over recent years. Despite the conservative stance of the Shura Council, in late 2011 King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and to run for municipal elections. At that time, he also appointed 30 women to the previously all-male, 150-member Shura Council, giving them some representation within the government. Additionally, as of May 2013, girls were no longer prohibited from playing sports, but were allowed to play approved sports when wearing “decent clothing.”

Although some progress has been made, many barriers exist. This was illustrated in October 2013 when women’s rights activists failed in their petition to the Shura Council requesting that the government grant women the right to drive.

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Uprisings in Yemen Resulted in Higher Dropout Rate

The Yemeni Ministry of Education is currently trying to assess the effects of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and subsequent security and economic instability on school dropout rates. “The dropout rate is a long-term predicament in Yemen because of poverty and illiteracy, but the phenomenon has increased since the 2011 uprising as a result of the security unrest. Many schools have to regularly shut down and irregular attendance contributes to the dropout rate,” said Abdullah Al-Ziadi, media director at the Ministry of Education.

Ensuring Every Girl a Right to an Education in Yemen

A survey of the capital alone showed that more than 20,000 students in 50 schools dropped out after 2011, according to Waleed Amer, director of Taleem Education Organization, a Yemeni NGO.

Because of economic slowdowns following the revolution, providing enough qualified teachers has also been a problem for Yemen. “This year, we do not have enough teachers. The Ministry of Education did not provide enough funding and takes no notice of how schools are functioning,” according to Ali Al-Shami, a teacher at Al-Ershad School in the west of the country.

In the northern parts of the country, ongoing sectarian violence between the Shiite Houthi group and members of the Sunni Yemen Islah Party has also contributed to low attendance and the displacement of students and teachers alike. “More than 5,000 students in many districts rocked by fighting in Amran and Sad’ada have been deprived of their education,” said Yahi Al-Jomari, a teacher in Amran.

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Israeli Online Course Brings E-Learning to Middle East

On March 2, professor Hossam Haick, of Israel’s Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology—will begin teaching the first massive open online course (MOOC) in Arabic, titled Nanotechnology and Nanosensors. The course offers free, open enrolment (you can find the English version here), with both Arabic and English language options. Currently, about 4,800 students have registered for the Arabic version, including studetns from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, the UAE, and the West Bank.

two boys, two concrete blocks

Haik said that he thought the course was attracting so much attention “Because nanotechnology and nanosensors are perceived as futuristic, and people are curious to understand what the future looks like…. is so cross- and multi-disciplinary… It offers a large diversity of research opportunities.”

E-learning is becoming increasingly popular in the Arab world, especially now that sites like Coursera, edX, Edraak, Rwaq, and SkillAcademy are making access much easier. (Though often the content is not originally in Arabic, but translated.) Arab states are also trying to implement e-learning in public schools, but these efforts have been most successful in the more prosperous Arab states—the UAE, for example, had an e-learning market of $14 million as far back as 2006. In March, Dubai will host the seventh annual Global Education Forum conference, during which e-learning will be a focus.

Haick said of the international appeal of the MOOC, “If the Middle East was like the Technion, we would already have peace. In the pure academy, you feel totally equal with every person. And you are appreciated based on your excellence.”


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Canadian PM Pledges $105 Million to Jordan to Support Syrian Refugees

Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister, announced on Thursday, January 23rd that the Canadian government would continue its support of Jordan in dealing with the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees. Harper announced that the $105 million in aid would go to support Jordan’s Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy program, under the direction of the Ministry of Education. “Jordan continues to show compassion and generosity by receiving Syrian refugees fleeing the crisis in their country. Our government is committed to helping them address the challenges posed by the Syrian conflict,” Harper said.

Hussein digs outside his tent near Amman to prevent flooding

The conflict in Syria has displaced nearly 2.5 million people since 2011, according to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Of those, the UN has registered nearly 176,000 refugees in Jordan, although the Jordanian government estimates that about 250,000 refugees have entered the country.

The massive influx of refugees has put a strain on the infrastructure of neighboring countries—especially on school systems that are often understaffed and underfunded. About 35 percent of the refugees in Jordan are school-aged and now attend Jordanian public schools. The Canadian aid is designed to help facilitate access to education for the Syrian refugees whom the Jordanian system might not otherwise be able to support. “The support announced today will help ensure that all children in Jordan, whether local or refugees, have access to a proper education,” said Harper.

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Yemen and UK Sign Education Cooperation Agreement

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, Yemeni Minister of Education Abdul Razzak al-Ashwal and Paul Doubleday, director of the British Council in Yemen and Oman, signed an agreement to further develop teacher skills in Yemen. The agreement will provide training for more than 11,000 primary and secondary level English teachers in Yemen, as well as support extracurricular and summer term activities. Additionally, the agreement affirms a commitment to develop programs for talented and gifted students. Yemen opened its first school for gifted students in the 2013-14 school year.

A teacher works with a hearing impaired studentThe agreement comes at a crucial time for Yemeni teacher development. More than half of Yemeni teachers lack basic teaching qualifications—of some 200,000 teachers, about 129,000 lack a bachelor’s degree. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found that Yemeni teachers were failing on five of eight key benchmarks for quality and performance.

“The ministry is doing its best to improve teacher performance via professional development programs,” said al-Ashwal. The Yemeni minister noted the efforts made by both nations to reach their goal of better teacher development. While Yemen still has a long way to go to develop teachers and improve their educational system, this agreement and its provisions are a promising start. 

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MENA Region Leaders Convene Round Table to Address Education

Earlier this month, the Mena Private Equity Association sponsored a round table to address the future of education in the region. Imad Ghandour, managing director of CedarBridge, and Jens Yahya Zimmermann, managing director of New Silk Route Growth Capital, two private equity firms specializing in education and school regulators in the MENA region, moderated the event.

Maghreb students sit for baccalaureate exams | المغرب الكبير على موعد مع امتحانات البكالوريا | Session du bac pour les élèves du Maghreb
Though there are differences between the priorities and systems of the different MENA countries, there are some common areas of need. The round table committee highlighted the need for vocational and technical training to give students skills required in modernizing economies.

The round table also emphasized e-learning as a viable supplement to classroom education. (There are already some programs active in the region, in Jordan, for example.) E-learning is a way of reaching rural students who lack the relatively easier access to schools afforded to students in urban areas.

There remain some challenges for education reform in the MENA region. There are concerns about stability, which is still adjusting to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Regulation also varies across the countries in the area, making area-wide strategies hard to implement.

The MENA region needs serious educational reforms if it is to prepare students for careers in a changing economy. Youth unemployment in the area stands at around 25 per cent—greater than that in any other region in the world, according to the IMF. The region also ranks last in terms of economic freedom, and there are too many students enter the workforce with too few skills—more than 30 per cent of firms in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Mauritania, and Egypt listed labor skill as a major constraint, compared to a world average of just over 20 per cent.

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Egypt Adjusts Curriculum After Outlawing Muslim Brotherhood

Since the Egyptian interim government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization last month, authorities have made aggressive moves to seize assets and reclaim the network of social services, including schools and hospitals, that Brotherhood maintained. The Ministry of Education is now moving to adjust school curricula to counter the influence of the Brotherhood. The Ministry of Education announced that school curricula had been adjusted to eliminate the amendments implemented by the Brotherhood after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Celebrations as Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi announced Egypt's presidentAlthough Egyptians had previously resisted the alterations, the Brotherhood was nevertheless successful in making changes to textbooks and the curriculum in its vast network of schools. Minister of Education Mahmoud Abo El-Nasr confirmed that several textbooks used in Egyptian high schools, including those in psychology and National Education courses, were inaccurate and not suitable for use in schools.

“It is within the Ministry of Education’s authority to delete some phrases that it deemed inappropriate and which served to glorify the Brotherhood simply because it attained power,” said Egyptian education advocate Kamal Moughit. Moughit asked the Constitutional Committee to address the problem of alterations to educational curricula by the ruling party. It remains to be seen how Egypt will continue to address the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood after the vote on the new constitution. But it is clear that the process will be long and involved, as the Brotherhood’s social services network was firmly entrenched in Egyptian society and politics.

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Egypt’s New Constitution Calls for Increased Spending on Education; Teacher Rights

Egypt’s new constitution—passed by an overwhelming majority of 98.1 per cent in a referendum earlier this month—calls for an increase in spending on education, and reforms to foster teacher rights and development. Article 19 of the constitution increases spending on basic education to a total of 4 per cent of GNP. Article 22 affirms the importance of professional development for teachers.

Tahrir Square ميدان التحرير

Egypt’s education system is in desperate need of reform. Egypt ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2013-14 in primary education, and the literacy rate stands at 72 per cent. The interim government has recently cracked down on schools previously controlled by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, having taken control of nearly 200 already. Many teachers in the Egyptian school system are underpaid and overworked, often teaching classes of over 60 students.

The constitution affirms education as “a right for every citizen. It is aimed at building the Egyptian character, preserving the national identity, establishing scientific methods of thinking, developing talent… and the establishment of concepts of citizenship, tolerance and non-discrimination. The State is committed to consider these objectives within curricula and other tools.”

Despite the positive language of the constitution, it remains to be seen what concrete steps and programs the government will implement to fulfill the obligations set out for them. Egypt has a long way to go in reforming their education system, but the new constitution lays the groundwork for some potential improvements.

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