Children today are vulnerable to more ills in our society than they did in the past, and Qatar is leading the way in advocating for their welfare
From poverty and malnutrition to crime and illiteracy, all countries face socio-economic challenges that they struggle to end, mainly because of economic constraints. Over the past couple of decades, however, experts have frequently pointed out that a relatively simpler—and more efficient—way of controlling such issues is to invest in the wellbeing of children.
“Repeated studies find that investments at relatively low financial costs during childhood can yield a lifetime of gains, not only for individuals, but also for societies and economies,” reads a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which describes child wellbeing as a “unique window of opportunity” for any society.
Families are trying to grow up their children, take them to better schools, and offer them everything they want, but what are the policies supporting them?
According to Dr. Anis Ben Brik, a director at Doha International Family Institute (DIFI), what differentiates a wealthy country from a poor one is not its wealth, but its investment in people, which directly impacts the country’s progression.
“Child wellbeing is important for governments from two perspectives—human capital and cost. Governments want healthy population because they want healthy people to go to universities and work,” said Dr. Brik.
“Unhealthy children and unhealthy relationships [within families] can lead to, for instance, more crime rates. More criminals are an added cost for the government, and of course this has an application on the social cohesion of the society.”
Founded by Qatar Foundation in 2006, DIFI is a global advocacy and policy organization that works toward strengthening healthy families in the Arab world—child wellbeing is one of its main focus areas.
The institute regularly holds international conferences to advocate for family policies, carries out evidence-based research regarding Arab families, and holds consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Redefining child wellbeing
Traditionally, the welfare of children revolved around basic survival needs like healthcare and education. However, as Dr. Brik explained, care for children spans different factors today, including the role of the family, protection in the digital age, mental health, state policies, and children’s rights.
“Child wellbeing needs to be looked at from a holistic aspect, involving all the stakeholders,” he said. “You can't just focus on one aspect of wellbeing—for instance, education—and ignore protection from domestic abuse or online bullying.”
One of the increasing challenges faced by children these days is cyber bullying, which involves harm inflicted upon children through online platforms, added Dr. Brik.
Unhealthy children and unhealthy relationships [within families] can lead to, for instance, more crime rates. More criminals are an added cost for the government.
And according to Dr. Sharifa Al Emadi, Executive Director of DIFI, while these new challenges to child safety are widely known, very few countries have established policies that protect children from these emerging problems.
“Families are trying to grow up their children, take them to better schools, and offer them everything they want, but what are the policies supporting them?” said Dr. Al Emadi. “We don't have many policies that protect children from their family (in cases of abuse). We don't have policies that protect children from unfriendly environments.”
Starting at home
At a national level, DIFI has already influenced several policies within Qatar to foster child wellbeing across different sectors, including what children are exposed to in public spaces.
The institute advocated for separating the family court building from one that also houses the criminal court. “Previously, a divorced couple would go to the primary court, mixed with criminals and others, and that's not healthy for the children,” said Dr. Brik.
“So, we all got different ministries together, discussed the issue, and came up with one recommendation to establish a family court. A few months later, the court was approved and it's there now in the Al Sadd area of Doha.”
Among other changes advocated by DIFI was an increase in maternity leave allowances across Qatar Foundation entities, so women can spend more quality time with their infants. In collaboration with other organizations in Qatar, the institute also led the creation of a special alimony fund for divorced women to secure financial support for the whole family.
“Many other countries have centralized systems for family care, but in Qatar we have many entities at the same time providing many services for the family and children. So here the challenge is to have a coordinated service, not a centralized one, and to make these entities work together to achieve one objective,” added Dr. Brik.
Currently, DIFI is working with various stakeholders across Qatar to create a national strategy for the family, an information management system to create indicators of family cohesion, and a national committee for women and children.
“We involve ministries and policymakers within our research, so they know from the beginning what is good for our children and for our country,” said Dr. Al Emadi, explaining that DIFI’s work in Qatar is a reflection of how it plans to advocate for child wellbeing policies in other countries, both within the region and beyond.
“In the future, we want to go beyond advocating for policies in Qatar or even in the region. So we are starting to do research now that, at the end, will become policy in other countries and we will work with their governments just as we are doing in Qatar.”