The Social Burden of Child Abuse


Parents are God’s chosen vehicles to bring life into this world. Yet every parent has the potential to become a child abuser. In a world that has lost its soul and suffers from ‘poverty of humanism,’ it is no wonder that the incidence of child abuse is escalating, in spite of the fact that only a fraction of cases is reported.

Child abuse is the continuous maltreatment of a child by a parent or a caregiver, which results in physical, mental, emotional or psychological injury to the victim. Statistics show that about three million cases are reported annually worldwide, most of them being abused by their own parents. In USA, 2450 cases are reported daily, of which four meet their death.

Different Forms of Abuse:

o Physical, which involves beating, burning or starving the child.

o Verbal, when a child is continuously insulted, scolded, yelled at, or ridiculed.

o Emotional, by not providing love, security, and attention which a child craves for, or by starvation or neglect of his needs.

o Sexual, by incest, sodomy, oral and other abnormal sexual activity.

The perpetrators in most cases are one or more parent. It can happen in any home, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, in villages or cities. Relatives, neighbours, friends or strangers can also abuse children.

Potential Triggers of Abuse:

o Poverty and the immediate needs of a large family can drive a person to desperation. It finds expression in physical or verbal abuse. Harassed mothers have known to kill their children and then commit suicide.

o Hormonal fluctuations in pre-menstrual, post natal or peri-menopausal years cause unpredictable mood swings in women, sometimes leading to abuse of children.

o Drunken or drug addicted parents are easily provoked.

o Abnormal babies or those with disabilities are subjected to abuse by both parents and the general public.

o Sexual abuse within the home is a disturbing reality. The infamous case of Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughter for years and sexually abused her, is still fresh in our minds.

Reasons why parents abuse their children:

– Immaturity, unwanted pregnancies and single motherhood.

– Lack of parenting skills and ignorance about the needs of a developing child and inability to cope.

– Judging children by adult standards.

– Over burdened mothers with home, husband, family and children to care for.

– Financial problems, illness, insecurity.

– Conflict between parents.

– Poor childhood experiences.

Abuse is a vicious circle. What the person experiences in childhood is replicated in his family. In a survey of prison mates, 37% women and 14% of men said they were abused in childhood.

Methods of various forms of abuse:

Physical Abuse might lead to bruises, head injuries, fractured bones. Sometimes there might be no external signs and parents may not even recognize internal bleeding.

– Poisoning is a well known form of abuse. Baby sitters and harassed mothers sedate irritable babies with opium or other drugs. Excessive salt in the food can cause drowsiness or even convulsions, which the caregiver may not know how to handle.

– Smothering with a pillow or stuffing a child’s mouth with a cloth, or putting a plastic bag over the head, are ways of quietening a child.

– Corporal punishments in school even though it is against the law, tonsuring the head, blackening the face, are methods used by teachers.

– Mutilation of children for purposes of begging, by kidnappers. This is big business and is run by syndicates in India, or Gypsy mafia in Europe. Children are also sold to Arabs for camel racing or to pimps for prostitution.

– Child labour is another form of abuse. Children are put to long hours of work in sweat shops, factories, hotels or construction sites.

Emotional Abuse can be subtle and difficult to detect. It may take the form of name calling, continuous verbal insults, repeated criticism, threats to abandon the child in some boarding home. Some children are starved or locked in the house when parents go out. In 60% of cases however, signs of neglect can be detected. Certain general features must arouse suspicion.

The child may be dirty, unkempt and underfed. He may be irritable and ill at ease in company. He may have trouble communicating with others. He could also be a slow learner, stammer or even refuse to talk. Parents do not stimulate his potential for cognition.

The effects are tragic. There nothing so sad as parental rejection. The child has a poor self image and lacks self esteem. He may withdraw into himself or find it difficult to trust or love people.

Sometimes, in a last ditch effort to enlist help, he will exhibit signs of “touch hunger,” a desire to be cuddled and held. He craves for physical contact. But this craving may also make him a likely candidate for sexual abuse.

Sexual Abuse has become a major problem worldwide. It comprises a wide range of activities from rape to indecent gestures and exposure, touch, showing pornographic films and literature or masturbating in the child’s presence. In some cultures, fondling of a child’s genitalia is not wrong. In slums where there is overcrowding, sexual privacy and body concealment are not adhered to. As a result, children become sexually aware at an early age.

Sexual abuse is seriously engaging the minds of psychiatrists, pediatricians, sociologists and even the law. Delinquency, mood disorders, criminal tendencies, psychosis, school drop out, are all being traced to sexual abuse in childhood.

Intrafamilial abuse (fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles) is as high as 45% of all cases. Incest occurs even in the highest social strata and is often a well kept secret. When the wife is an invalid, a man seeks pleasure with his female child, as he cannot jeopardize his reputation by going to a prostitute. The wife covertly acquiesces, as she does not want to lose her husband. The victim is in a dilemma. She loves her father, but knows that what he is doing is wrong. Her guilt may lead to delusions, hallucinations, lying, or lesbianism, prostitution, alcohol or drug addiction in later life.

Time to Act:

Society must assume responsibility for the security of children. It has three obligations.

1. Be aware about various forms of child abuse.

2. Report any suspicious case to the police, child protection services or child welfare organizations. Doctors, pediatricians, neighbours or friends should not hesitate to take suitable action.

3. Help abused victims or their troubled parents in whatever way you can, either by providing useful information or resources.

Parents must provide a secure home where there is love, discipline and proper guidance. Children need a moral scaffolding on which to build their lives. Discipline should be through parental example.

Spending quality time and communicating freely with children, will create a close rapport with them. They will bring their problems home and advice and guidance. Parents should be involved in the lives of their children.

Parents who have abusive tendencies must seek the advice of counselors and make use of the many support services available. Both the child and parents may need extended counseling until the child feels protected, and the parents have been cured of their bad behaviour.

Cruelty leaves a mark on the chemistry of the brain. Continuous abuse may bring about permanent changes. This can turn them into violent and antisocial individuals in later life.

The chemical vasopressin increases aggression and serotonin suppresses it.

When children become secretive or have nightmares, or wet the bed or show sudden adult behaviour, prompt investigation should be done, and the cause eliminated.

Child abuse affects everybody. It is a social burden, and the responsibility of helping both the abusive parents and the abusive child to break the vicious circle, must rest with society.