When the victim is a child

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Child abuse is today defined as anything from hitting a child, to sexual and psychological abuse. And sadly, child abuse in all its forms, is very rampant in Indian society. Gayatri Ayyer examines the issue.

When I was a child, spanking or physical punishments were the norm to discipline children, and no one complained. Now parents and teachers are told to use other forms of disciplinary actions as physical punishment can be termed ‘abuse.’ Let’s understand what ‘abuse’ is when we question the laws, and why abuse can be traumatic to children.

Defining child abuse

Child abuse or child maltreatment is physical, sexual or psychological maltreatment or neglect of a child, especially by a parent or other caregiver. It includes any act or failure to act by a parent or a caregiver that results in actual or potential harm to the child. Maltreatment is a broad term that includes neglect, exploitation and trafficking. According to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), violence against children can be “physical and mental abuse and injury, neglect or negligent treatment, exploitation, and sexual abuse. Violence may take place in homes, schools, orphanages, residential care facilities, on the streets, in the workplace, in prisons and in places of detention.”

This abuse can be of several kinds according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – physical, mental, emotional, psychological or in the form of neglect or exploitation. It brings about circumstances causing harm to a child’s health, development, dignity, welfare, and safety. In some cases, the results of the abuse have caused serious injury or even death.

Physical abuse involves non-accidental harming of a child by, for example, burning, beating, spanking, burning, whipping, or breaking bones.

Verbal and emotional abuse involves harming a child by, for example, belittling (ridiculing) them or threatening physical or sexual acts, restricting movement, scaring, discriminating, etc. In India, family members and teachers put pressure on children to perform well in school and college examinations, which can be seen as a form of emotional stress and abuse.

Sexual abuse is engaging a child in any sexual activity that he/she does not understand or cannot give informed consent for, or is not physically, mentally or emotionally prepared for. Abuse can be conducted by an adult or another child who is developmentally superior to the victim. This includes using a child for pornography, sexual materials, prostitution, unlawful sexual practices, and trafficking.

Child neglect occurs when someone does not provide the necessities of life to a child, either intentionally or with reckless disregard for the child’s well-being. This can include physical neglect, such as withholding food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities. Emotional neglect includes withholding love or comfort or affection. Medical neglect occurs when medical care is withheld due to sociocultural or religious beliefs. In India, in many families neglect also happens towards the female child. She is deprived of access to good nutrition, health, educational opportunities, as she is considered ‘paraya dhan’ (alien property). The female child is considered a burden as the family has to pay dowry for her marriage, and hence don’t want to waste resources on her. In many urban and rural areas, the female foetus or child is killed to avoid the burden.

Child abuse is widespread and can occur in any cultural, ethnic, or income group. Statistics about child abuse happening in homes are hard to obtain as most of these crimes go unreported or are not considered abuse by families and caregivers. Societal abuses that are a result of poverty such as malnutrition, lack of education, poor health, neglect, etc., are recognised in various forms by the Indian legal system, but aren’t considered important.

The grim statistics

According to the report on crimes in India for 2016, released by Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Delhi, 106,958 cases of crimes against children were recorded in 2016. Of these, 36,022 cases were recorded under Pocso (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act. Sexual abuse of a child is difficult to define due to varied forms of the abuse, and the one that is least reported due to family honour and stigma. The majority of sexual offenders are family members or people known to the child. Sexual abuse by strangers is not as common as sexual abuse by family members. Research shows that there are more cases of men being sexual offenders, compared to women.

There are numerous reasons why child abuse occurs. Some examples of risk factors that can contribute to abuse:

  • Parents’ lack of understanding of children’s needs and child development
  • Poor parenting styles and unhealthy communication patterns in the family
  • Parents’ history of domestic abuse
  • Poverty and unemployment of parents
  • Parental separation and divorce
  • Substance abuse in the family
  • Parental stress or mental health issues
  • Child having a disability

One of the worst things to happen to a child is abuse – whether physical, emotional, sexual, and educational or health neglect by parents/guardians. In case of sexual abuse, many children tend to suppress the abuse due to the trauma and guilt feelings and may understand and reveal it years after the abuse happened, in adulthood.

It’s not always easy to recognise when a child has been abused. Children who are abused are often afraid to complain because they are fearful that they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Additionally, the person who abused them may be someone they love very much and want to protect – a family member, a caregiver, school personnel, neighbour, etc.

Parents, caregivers and teachers should watch for sudden or unexplained changes in the child’s body or behaviour. Ask for medical examination to be conducted if there is reason to suspect some form of abuse has occurred. The following is not an exhaustive list, but parents and caregivers must look for the following signs:
Signs of physical abuse: Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained. The child may start wearing weather inappropriate clothes to hide injuries (e.g., long sleeved shirts or t-shirts in summer).
Signs of sexual abuse: Fearful behaviour (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away), abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease, extreme sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for the child’s developmental age. The child tends to avoid or fear an adult or peer or any older child. Suddenly the child shows obsessive or compulsive behaviours like bathing or hand washing 10 to 15 times a day. There could also be a change in dressing style, with the child donning oversized or provocative clothes.
Signs of emotional abuse: Sudden change in self-confidence, headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause, abnormal fears, increased nightmares or attempts to run away.
Signs of emotional neglect: Failure to gain weight (especially in infants), desperately affectionate behaviour, voracious appetite, and stealing of food.

Emotional trauma can result from several forms of abuse. Research has indicated direct neural impact from abuse – as seen in the emotional lobe, memory centre, decision-making centre, and other brain functioning areas. Any form of abuse robs the child of his/her childhood, innocence and their faith/trust in the world. Childhood abuse and trauma can have long term effects not only on the child, but also in the child’s future relationships with people. An older child may use drugs or alcohol, try to run away, or abuse others. The younger the child is and the closer the child’s relationship to the abuser, the more serious the emotional damage will be. They develop lack of trust in people, can become loners, emotionally closed, or clingy. Research also connects early childhood trauma and behaviour patterns to later development of psychological disorders. As adults, they may develop marital and sexual difficulties, depression or suicidal behavior. With early detection and counselling, the psychosocial impact may be reduced.


Gayatri Ayyer

Gayatri Ayyer is a Doctoral student in Counselling at University of North Texas, USA. She has worked as a school counsellor and psychology teacher in schools in India before going back to life as a student, to get further trained as a Counsellor. She hopes to specialise in Play Therapy and Animal Assisted Therapy, to help children and adults.

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