Is your child safe with your maid?
Published on May 1, 2014
DUBAI It’s 8am and corporate finance manager Margaret Cox, 25, is running late for work. She makes a quick stop at a neighbouring apartment in Dubai Marina and drops off her 11-month-old daughter after hurriedly kissing her goodbye. “You will be fine with aunty,” she says, before driving off. Elsewhere, in The Springs, Elsa, 31, is more relaxed. She has just woken up, but her three-year-old son is all showered and dressed. The help at home has taken care of that, just as she has with his breakfast. She also packs his nursery bag and lunch box, before escorting him down the building to catch the school bus….Elsa is happy that her son will be safe at home with his nanny once he returns from school.
September 23, 2012: Maid caught on camera raping one-year-old boy, screamed headlines of major newspapers. An Asian housemaid in Abu Dhabi waited for her Arab employer and his wife to go out before laying their child naked on the bed, taking her clothes off and raping him, unaware of the hidden cameras installed in the house. The film showed the maid sitting on top of the boy, stifling his cries of pain with a pillow. She faces up to 15 years in jail.
On September 26, 2012, a Saudi mother of three returned home with her two children to see her youngest daughter lying in a pool of blood. Her head had been severed by the family’s domestic helper. Having worked for the family for seven years, the helper was well regarded, described by one relative as being an excellent worker, making the incident harrowing.
October 3, 2012: 66 nurseries to be built in Sharjah. His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah ordered the construction of the nurseries across Sharjah to protect children from abuse and neglect. He made the announcement in light of an incident where a maid beat a six-month-old baby. The CCTV footage was broadcasted on the Dubai TV and showed the maid beating and torturing the baby without mercy in front of his other siblings.
Such cases are not a recent trend either. In 2009, a maid was filmed on security cameras beating a child to such an extent that the boy suffered severe fractures.
This footage was submitted to the prosecution as evidence, but it does beg the question to what extent CCTV can really prevent child abuse. Citing these cases in which the footage was used against the abuser certainly shows that it has its uses, but it did little to prevent the abuse happening in the first place.
Admittedly some of the most harrowing cases of child abuse mentioned above, such atrocities involving child abuse by maids are not isolated incidents, and the public has become quite used to hearing such stories in the press. However, in light of these incidents, perhaps it’s time for the mothers of Dubai to start questioning the maid culture that’s so easy to slip into. Often a luxury that expatriates may not dream of indulging in back home, an extra pair of hands around the house is almost a standard practice in the Middle East among both the Emiratis and the expatriates. However, it’s when childcare is added to the long list of jobs a helper is expected to do that the practice becomes dangerous.
According to a prosecution source in the one-year-old boy’s rape case, “The UAE deals firmly with anything that endangers children and harms them physically and psychologically… under the law, the parents bear the responsibility to protect their children against such dangers. We are very much worried about the growing phenomenon of families relying heavily on maids to look after their children… the UAE law considers that parents leaving their child alone with a maid amounts to an act of endangering others’ life…this crime is punishable under law.”
Dr Shaikh Sultan, who recalled the beating that was aired on Dubai TV, has also called on parents to pay attention to their children to protect them from such abuse. “People are not aware of the risk of leaving children in the hands of housemaids without sufficient care,” he said. Interestingly, a Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) study last year revealed that children in the UAE spend too much time with nannies. The report said: “The child-at-home model for children below the age of four is common in the Gulf states because of the availability of low-paid nannies who typically have no professional qualifications in child care.”
Another 2005 study published in the Journal of Childhood Research stated that 58 per cent of children in the region under the age of three spend 30-70 hours a week with domestic helpers. As recently as this year, a study by bilingual inspector Raba’a Al Sumaiti presented at a forum organised by the KHDA and Dubai School of Government, revealed that 94 per cent of Emirati families employ maids for raising children. Hala B. Roumani, Principal of the Gulf Montessori nurseries in Dubai and author of the 2005 study, said there was an economic benefit to parents using their domestic help as child care. “A maid is an economic alternative and provides a long list of additional services.”
Rabbia Fatima Al Fahim, an Emirati mother of three relies on her domestic help and her mother-in-law to take care of her three children while she is at work. According to her, access to quality childcare services is a serious concern. “I am dependent on my maid for everything, right from the children’s morning shower to breakfast, giving them lunch and putting them to bed,” she said. “This is the best option because the private nurseries are very expensive.”
Aside from the frightening possibility of endangering children’s safety, there are other detrimental effects of leaving them with maids. Parents who delegate childcare to untrained maids and nannies risk their children’s development at a crucial early age. The 2012 study written by Sumaiti, entitled Parental involvement in the education of their children in Dubai raises the point that parents are essential for the “emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive development and well-being of their children”. In their formative years, their minds and personalities are developing rapidly, and language skills could be hampered if they are left with a maid who is not fluent in either Arabic or English. But what is the alternative? The prospect of hiring a qualified nanny to look after your child might sound good, but for some the option may be costly. Mary, a mother of three in Jumeirah, said although she would feel more comfortable hiring a professional, her household budget just doesn’t stretch that far.
“I would love the luxury of having a nanny around the house, but I simply can’t afford it. Right now, I’m able to work part-time, but if I was to go back to work full-time and earn enough to pay for a nanny, I’d be spending less time with my kids myself. It doesn’t make sense.” So what is the actual price difference? In comparison to a maid, who can expect to be paid a salary between Dh1,000 and Dh2,000 a month depending on her country of origin, a nanny’s weekly wage is much more likely to burn a whole in your pocket at Dh1,500. Nurseries too could be an option for parents who work and want to have their child both occupied and looked after while they’re away, despite the fact that a staggeringly low five per cent of Emirati children in Dubai are enrolled in one.
Collette Corroon, Cofounder of Little Land nursery in Jumeirah, which she helped run for 13 years, said she opened the nursery because she wasn’t ready to leave her three-year-old with a maid. “If parents think their only alternative is a maid then they can’t work.” It’s worth considering as well what toll may take on the maids when they are left alone with children. Leaving someone who isn’t qualified to look after young children could not only put the child but the maid at risk as well. In October, two young maids who were unable to swim were left in charge of an infant by the pool at a hotel resort in Fujairah. Tragically, when the three-year-old boy fell in to the pool, both maids jumped in to save him, but ended up drowning in the process. Although the hotel management has been taken in by the police for questioning of the lack of a lifeguard, it’s important to question what responsibility the parents should shoulder. Interestingly, though there is not a law specifically against leaving your child with an untrained caregiver, a Federal Child Protection Law to prevent against neglect has recently been drafted, and currently, anyone who endangers their child’s life could face between three months and one year in jail. When both parents work however, and neither a maid nor a nanny is an option, it’s time to ask what services your work place should be providing.
A law passed by the Dubai Government in 2006 states that the federal and municipal government are required to set up crèches should they have more than 50 female employees or if all their female employees have a total of more than 20 children below the age of four. Nearly six years on, it’s questionable how much progress has been made.
1. Do you think leaving your child with a maid or nanny is a good idea?
2. How good are nurseries for your child?
3. How can parents ensure the safety of their children when they are left with maids?
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