Babies out of wedlock still in the shadows after UAE law change

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) – More than a dozen single women huddled in a prison cell south of Dubai last year, locked up for the crime of childbirth, when a guard entered and them declared free.

The incident, described by one of the women, was one of the first concrete signs that the UAE had decriminalized premarital sex in an overhaul of its Islamic penal code.

But a year later, these single mothers remain trapped in limbo, fighting to obtain birth certificates for babies born in the shadows.

A new law that will take effect in two weeks still does not offer single women a clear path to obtain birth certificates for their babies. At the same time, the law criminalizes women without these documents.

Although single mothers are no longer jailed after the UAE legalized premarital sex in November 2020, they now face a maze of red tape.

Obtaining birth certificates for their babies is an expensive process that the country’s poorest residents – the foreign workers who clean desks, serve food, and care for the children of other mothers – cannot afford. . Expats outnumber locals by almost nine to one in the Emirates.

“We were so hopeful,” said Star, one of those released from Sharjah Central Prison in December 2020 with her 3-month-old daughter. “Then came troubles that I didn’t think I had the strength to overcome. “

Star only gave her first name for fear of reprisals. She and six other single women, mostly Filipino, described their legal battles to The Associated Press.

Before the law change last year, many had given birth in hospitals, where health officials refused them birth certificates and called the police. Others have retreated to their shared apartments, scared and alone, to have their babies.

In the United Arab Emirates, hospitals only issue birth certificates to married parents. Without the certificates, children cannot receive medical care, go to school or travel. Their mothers, who lost their jobs and homes during prosecution under the old law, find themselves stranded. The number of undocumented children in the UAE is not known.

Lawyers say the obstacles come from a persistent conservative mindset and a lack of government coordination.

Some women even aspire to the previous sentence, usually one year of detention and deportation. While terrifying, it guaranteed at least one return flight and ID documents for their children.

“It has only gotten more difficult since the law changed,” said Sitte Honey, a 25-year-old mother. “They won’t take you to jail and they don’t want you to give birth,” she added, noting that abortion is also prohibited. “We were stuck.”

Dirar Belhoul Al Falasi, member of the United Arab Emirates Federal National Consultative Council, argued that last year’s decriminalization has had an impact.

“Before that, I had nothing in hand to legalize what they have,” he told the AP. “But now there is a law … with which we can help them.”

Under a new law that will come into force on January 2, parents who do not provide their children with papers face a minimum of two years in prison. It makes no reference to health authorities issuing birth certificates to single mothers. The law requires parents to marry or acquire travel documents and other documents to prove the identity of their children, without specifying how.

This has fueled panic among single mothers who fear further penalties.

Last year, as lawyers scrambled to understand the opaque legal code, women like Star were released from jail across the country. Conditions in the institutions varied and in some, mothers were separated from their children.

Star said her daughter was taken from her while in detention. She said 15 women shared a single bathroom, lived only on rice and bread, and were left out for 30 minutes each day to get some fresh air. Other women described the police interrogations of their sexual history as deeply humiliating.

But after the release of these women, they still couldn’t get what they wanted most: identity documents.

Maya, a 36-year-old mother, turned into authority in November 2020 when she learned it would help her get a birth certificate for her 1-year-old. After several weeks of torture at Al Qusais Police Station in Dubai, authorities were alerted to the law change and released her. But they never granted her daughter legal status, forcing her to ricochet from one government office to another in her quest.

“These massive fundamental changes are welcome, but there is still a lot to catch up with,” said Ludmila Yamalova, managing partner of LYLAW, a company that deals with single mothers.

“Emotionally and mentally, people are not ready to accept the law as a reality,” she added, referring to health and law enforcement agencies.

Women continue to secretly raise undocumented children. Noraida Gamama, desperate to document her 3-year-old daughter, covered the door of her Sharjah apartment with signs warning her half-dozen roommates to check the peephole before answering to make sure it wasn’t ‘a government official.

Living on expired visas and struggling to feed infants on minimal income, many cannot afford court fees and lawyer bills. It costs over $ 350 to open a birth certificate application file independently in Dubai Family Court.

Ann, 36, has several part-time jobs, sleeping a few hours a night, to feed her undocumented 2-year-old daughter. She recounted the agony of giving birth on the floor of a rented room in Dubai. “All I want is to give her a name, bring her back to the Philippines where she can live a better life,” Ann said.

Yet a growing number of women are taking their cases to court, with mixed success. A clerk at a Dubai court said the system processes more than 50 “baby cases” per day.

When Honey found out she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child two years ago, she asked the Philippine Consulate to send her home. But while waiting for help that never came, baby Naya was born in her small apartment.

Without legal status after fleeing abusive employers who confiscated her passport, Honey is desperate to leave Dubai. But the authorities cannot repatriate her until Naya gets the papers.

“It’s a nightmare. No money, no visa, no rent, no plan,” Honey said.

To hasten her return, Honey’s 47-year-old mother moved to Qatar as a housekeeper, raising the money to open a case in Dubai last month. She is still waiting for her first hearing and is trying to get a written acknowledgment of paternity from her ex-boyfriend.

The process requires a single mother to provide a ream of personal documents, pass a DNA test, and testify before a judge. If the judge approves it, the mother can request the birth certificate of her child.

Some, like Star, have persevered and succeeded.

“This kind of joy is overwhelming to know that your daughter is no longer illegal,” Star said from her family’s home in Davao City, Philippines. “It’s like I’m breathing for the first time.”

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