Understanding Child Abuse

You would think that after several millennia of co-existing, humankind would have figured out how to treat each other with kindness and empathy. However, this is unfortunately not the case. As a glimpse around will tell us, the world is plagued by various social injustices like discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexuality, economic inequality, war crimes, animal abuse, etc. These human rights violations denote a dystopian world where all people are not seen or treated the same and ultimately point to our failure as a so-called “intelligent” species.

Of the many injustices that plague our world today, child abuse stands out as a particularly heinous crime, because the victims are easily silenced or gaslighted by the perpetrators. It is also worth noting that some forms of child abuse are seen as disciplinary in certain cultures, worsening the issue and making it harder to identify and rectify. Child abuse creates a vicious cycle by inflicting trauma on children and causing them to become adults with severe psychological issues and a disposition to continue the chain of abuse.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child abuse or ‘maltreatment’ as the abuse and neglect that occurs to children under 18 years of age that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. It can be initiated by the parents/caregivers or by third parties.

There are many types of child maltreatment including physical, sexual and psychological forms of abuse. There are even situations where there is an overlap, i.e., a child experiences multiple types of abuse at the same time.

  • Physical abuse is when a child is intentionally injured by force (punching, kicking, cutting, burning, etc). It is a very common kind of abuse as it is seen as a trivial thing, but it has the potential to affect the child later on in life.
  • Sexual abuse includes intercourse (penetrative or non-penetrative), exposure to pornography or contact of a sexual nature, all of which a minor cannot legally consent to. This kind of abuse often leaves the most damage, in terms of intensity or duration.
  • Exploitation is a form of abuse in which the child is used for profit immorally, either by the guardians or by external perpetrators. This includes child labour, prostitution, trafficking and child marriage, where children are forced into unsavoury situations with no way out. Some abusers also engage in ‘grooming’ or manipulating the child to gain access to them and earn their trust.
  • Child neglect can involve not providing access to basic necessities such as food, shelter or clothes, failing to cater to the child’s emotional needs of love, care and support, or not providing access to other important needs such as education or healthcare. Unlike the other types of abuse which are active in nature, neglect is passive in nature as it is essentially an absence of action from the parents or caretakers.
  • Psychological abuse is often tied in with the other forms of abuse, but can also be inflicted on its own through emotional or verbal abuse which could adversely affect a child’s mental health and emotional well-being.

While the situations cited above are more or less punishable by law, there are other ways in which children are mistreated by their family, community and society. Setting unreasonable expectations in academic, social and religious settings will put pressure on the child and cause harmful repercussions in the long run. Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to raising kids, so awareness and sensitivity training for future parents and childcare workers (including teachers) is a good way to ensure children are not subjected to undue trauma.

Domestic violence has seen an increase in recent times due to the global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. As youngsters were trapped in with their abusers in stressful situations, reports of abuse have flooded in. But most people still choose to look the other way when it comes to such cases. Reasons range from believing it is a “family matter” and not wanting to interfere, to not recognizing symptoms of child abuse or being sure of the resources available to help the victims.

So, what should you do if you suspect a case of child abuse? In India, there are many helplines you can get in touch with to report instances of child abuse, and they can be availed by anyone including the children themselves. Make sure to communicate with the child to get a clear idea of what’s happening and to be discreet while reporting.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan 24/7 Helpline: 1800-102-7222 

National Child Relief Helpline: 1098

By Christine George

I’m Christine. I’m a writer, feminist and aspiring multilingual. I love trying out new foods, new music and new places. When it comes down to activism, I believe awareness is the first step, and we should use our social media circles to make the world a better place.


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