"Child abuse" can be defined as causing or permitting any harmful or offensive contact on a child's body; and, any communication or transaction of any kind which humiliates, shames, or frightens the child. It is an act or omission, which fails to nurture in the upbringing of the children at any age, sex, race, religion, and socioeconomic background. Children who are abused suffer greatly, and a society in which abuse takes place is considerably diminished. The African proverb, 'It takes a village to raise a child', epitomises the importance of the role of the wider community in raising children and young people.
For young children the three broad categories of child abuse are-
a. Physical abuse
b. Emotional abuse
c. Sexual abuse
Physical abuse is very common in our country both in urban and rural areas. Spanking, hitting, pinching are an accepted method of disciplining young children both in schools and at home. In a recent article of the American college of Paediatricians there are guidelines to how and how much a parent should/can spank a child. This is a cause for worry as research shows that children who are spanked or physically abused learn to use violence as a means to solving all conflicts in life, they learn that ‘hitting’ is a form of showing love and tend to be more physically abusive in all their relationships. An article in Time magazine, ‘Should teachers be allowed to spank students?’ points out that there is little evidence that spanking actually works to change children's behaviour for the better. In fact, kids spanked tend to be more aggressive than other kids and are likelier to develop behavioural problems as they get older. It further says that some studies show that corporal punishment can even lower IQs. Teachers and parents both need to understand the negative long lasting effects of spanking and should be taught to use conflict resolution for behaviour management. In today’s world teachers and mothers need to be leaders and not bosses. In Piaget’s words they must work for the goal of ‘autonomy’ (intelligent and ethical decision making) rather than obedience. The community can play a huge role in bringing about this change. Regular reports about this in the media have helped to strengthen the laws and now teachers can be imprisoned if found to have spanked or hit or physically abused children. Teacher training colleges to include behaviour management as a subject in the curriculum so that teachers are trained about the different techniques that can be used in place of physical abuse for classroom discipline. Therapists, counsellors, paediatricians and schools can educate parents about the futility of trying to change children with physical abuse. As mahatma Gandhi says, ‘punishment never cures children, infact it hardens them further’.
The second kind of abuse that young children in our society are subjected to is emotional abuse, lack of love; nurturing and the growing trend of stressing children with high and unrealistic expectations of making them excel right from kindergarten years. The additional emotional stress on these young kids is multiplied many fold when they are interviewed for school admissions. The collective stress of preparing for the interview, facing a stranger and unreasonable pressure placed by parents, all tend to stress out the young growing brain. Brain research in recent years has proven that 98% of the brain develops in the first five years and important neuro chemicals required for brain growth are diminished when a child undergoes this kind of emotional stress leading to primitive reflex behaviours like fight and flight and thus aggravating the situation further leading to more reprimands from the parents and the vicious cycle never ends. Emotional abuse leaves lasting scars leading to unhealthy behaviour and personality traits which will impact the self esteem, confidence, language skills, cognitive skills and social skills of the child. Erik Erikson emotional development theory- the eight stages of mankind, clearly states that these children will develop mistrust, guilt, shame, inferiority complex which can even lead to isolation and despair. Community intervention for emotional abuse is more difficult but not impossible, gynaecologists should start distributing relevant material on brain development to expectant mothers so that in the nine months she can start to understand and relate to the needs of her growing child and this will then continue to be practised as she becomes a parent. Teachers in the early childhood programs can be trained to look for signs of emotional abuse in children so that they can identify it early and help the parents change their behaviour and expectations of the child. Television programs that make children compete even before they have gained confidence in themselves or developed their own personality is a worrying trend that needs to be stopped immediately.
The third worrying form of abuse that children are facing is the heinous crime of sexual abuse. This perversion in our society is growing day by day and the target of this is now little toddlers. Child sexual abuse must be one of the most heinous crimes committed against children. It is sad and disgusting because the kids do not even realize that a crime has been committed as child sexual abusers are usually adults that the child ‘trusts’. An emerging sickness in these offenders that had never been addressed when warning children about sexual abuse is that we are always warning kids about others touching them in their private parts, but we don’t warn them about others asking them to touch them (the abusers) in their private parts. This sick technique used by many offenders makes the child an innocent party to their sick sexual perverseness.
Yes, this country needs stringent laws to punish such criminals, but this country also needs to sensitise the parents, the teachers, the kids and the youth about taking care of their bodies and keeping them safe. Parents and teachers can work together and educate children of all ages about being safe and understanding about GOOD TOUCH- BAD TOUCH. It is never too early to talk to kids about body safety and in this case prevention is definitely better than cure. Prevention is possible if parents and teachers understand about keeping children safe from harm at all times.
Parents need to understand that children are too innocent to understand such acts. Parents and teachers both need to understand that sometimes in their ‘non stop chatter’, children may have important things to tell us, so don’t ignore them. And teachers and parents need to understand that children ‘talk’ through their drawings so listen and look for the clues.
The larger socio-economic system in which child and family are embedded can influence family functioning, child development and the availability of helping resources, such as universal child and health services, within communities and neighbourhoods. The importance of community is currently undergoing a resurgence of interest, with governments and the child welfare and family support sectors redesigning services to become more community-centred, and forging alliances with local communities to help improve the physical and social environment of communities. Child abuse prevention programs play an important role in crime prevention, because not only is abuse criminal activities, children who are abused are at greater risk of engaging in antisocial and criminal behaviour later in life. The key community-level factors that are likely to be related to child maltreatment, such as poverty, neighbourhood, culture and parenting practices, apply more to physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect than to the sexual abuse of children. Community-level approaches, particularly those designed to create healthy communities, focus on the forms of maltreatment that can be remedied or prevented by the use of social support or parent education via the promotion of 'positive parenting' strategies. Such strategies are not designed to prevent child abuse. The application of holistic or community-based approaches to the prevention of child abuse is limited to primary-level community education of parents and the education of school-aged children to teach them the means of avoiding or seeking assistance with unwanted sexual or physical advances. Personal safety programs have the aim of educating children to protect themselves from sexual abuse. The programs attempt to involve the children's parents in order to raise community awareness of child abuse and to teach parenting skills related to protecting children and detecting signs of abuse. Protective Behaviours programs focus on teaching children to avoid a wide range of potentially unsafe situations, only some of which involve child maltreatment. Effective child abuse prevention requires a truly holistic approach where risk and resiliency continue to be acknowledged as inter-related and solutions are developed to address the former and to promote the latter.medical exams; psychosocial support; education; advocacy; consultation.
Community based intervention is now increasingly more important as children are being brought up mostly by strangers. The breakup of the joint family system and increasing economic burden has meant that both parents are out seeking financial resources for survival and leaving the every important job of nurturing and care of their children in the hands of crèches, daycares, pre schools, ayahs, etc. Children these days come more and more in contact with strangers which was never the case before. The young child in the family was always the most protected and taken care of by some or the other family member. Today sadly these kids because of their exposure and dependence on care by strangers are also becoming victims of child abuse of all three kinds. Untrained staff, unhealthy practises, lack of adult child ratio in their care is all leading to children’s needs being sidelined and taken care of by one or the other kind of abuse.
It’s time to change that, it’s time for a community conscience to be built, a conscience that will be alert to the needs of the young child. It is said that ‘the child is the father of the man’, rightly so as these young children will grow up to be the youth and driving force of this country. If they are abused then they will grow up as fractured youth that will diminish the community and societal strength of our country. A community conscience will help us all become alert to the needs of kids and especially help us be alert about child abuse so that the necessary action can be taken in time before it destroys the very fabric of our community.
Community conscience can be a four pronged approach wherein neighbours, teachers, parents, media and policy makers become alert about abuse and ensure that it is reported, prevented and remedied with intervention and stringent laws, laws that would favour the child and not the offender. It’s time to bring abuse out of our homes as this is the first place where physical and emotional abuse to children starts. Children do not have the voice or the language development to make a case for themselves and that is why we are unable to hear their sounds of silence. Community based interventions like educating parents and teachers using radio programs, documentaries, articles in local newspapers, messages during television soaps will all ensure that we are able to prevent abuse so that intervention happens before the abuse and not after. Another major area of concern is juvenile homes, remedial homes and processes that these victim go through as sometimes these very places add to the abuse instead of being the solution they aggravate the problem. This happens due to lack of resources, lack of training and insensitive handling of children. With community intervention that is conscience based which means we make training, prevention, advocacy a part of our collective community conscience we will be able to ensure that their voice is heard and touch never becomes trouble in any child’s life. It’s time to make the village rise so that the sounds we hear are not of silent suffering but that of happy, healthy, nurtured children.