RISK FACTORS FOR CHILD ABUSE
Written by: Supun Fonseka
“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future” is a famous statement made by former president of the USA John F. Kennedy. This brilliant collection of words embodies the idea that if we provide our children with a pleasant and happy childhood they will develop the personality traits, skills and values that will enable them to in turn create an even better world for their children. Taking action to safeguard our children will therefore create an endless ripple, a ripple that will have far reaching positive consequences for the whole of humanity. Child protection and welfare is a very broad topic that encompasses a wide range of affairs including education, peace, child health and much more. Child abuse and the prevention of it is only one of these, but for the purposes of this article we will narrow down our scope to this pressing issue. If we are to prevent child abuse, at the very core of that endeavour should be a thorough understanding of what makes children vulnerable to abuse and a sincere effort to eliminate these factors.
The factors that influence child abuse can be considered at individual, close interpersonal relationship, community and societal or cultural levels. These risk factors include those which drive or influence the abuser and those which make the child more vulnerable. Individual level risk factors are those which are intrinsic characteristics of the abuser or the child. Children with personality disorders and intellectual disability who are unable to stand up to abusers, children who are unaware of child abuse and what it might constitute and are therefore unable to recognize such situations and get away or at least report it to responsible parties afterwards are at a higher risk of being abused. Adults who have a history of being abused themselves as children and those who have poor control of their impulses are more likely to become the perpetrators of child abuse. Much attention should therefore be placed on educating children on child abuse ensuring that such information is framed in an appropriate and sensitive manner for different age groups. Adolescents in particular should be educated on sexual abuse and related topics. Strong personality characteristics in children that would enable them to stand up to abusers should be inculcated and encouraged.
Several factors in their immediate environment can also make children more vulnerable to abuse. Poor upbringing, parental conflicts, poverty, poor educational background of the family members, lack of awareness among the family members on child abuse, lack of appropriate protection being offered by the family, broken family environment, single parent families are all such risk factors. Children being unable to protect themselves, rely on their parents and the family at large for protection and a safe upbringing, lack of this essential support and care can lead to children falling prey to abusers. It is extremely saddening that globally 300 million children suffer physical or psychological abuse at the hands of their own parents or caregivers. Parents and caregivers who misuse alcohol and illicit substances, have unrealistic expectations about their children, lack awareness about normal child development, have a mental or neurological disorder, have financial difficulties and are engaged in criminal activities are more likely to abuse their children. It has also been shown that adults who have a history of being abused themselves when they were children are more likely to abuse their own children. Taking proper decisive action now can help break this vicious cycle.
Children spend a very large proportion of their time at school and are therefore also vulnerable to be subject to various forms of abuse at school. Lack of awareness among the teachers about child abuse, teachers having incorrect attitudes and using disciplinary methods that can lead to violence can make children more vulnerable to abuse. This emphasizes the importance of educating teachers and other educators about child abuse in its various forms to protect children not only at school, but also beyond the school gates. Less than ideal education systems which are very competitive and without proper legal protections for children aimed at preventing abuse or ones where the legal measures that are in place are not properly implemented also make children vulnerable to abuse. These issues need to be addressed at a much higher level by the policy makers. It shouldn’t be forgotten that children can also be abused by their same aged peers at school. All this stresses the value of implementing measures at all these levels aimed at protecting children at school.
A child living in a community that is composed of people that are unaware of what child abuse constitutes, suffering from poverty and unemployment, having insufficient child protection services with inefficient officials and poor institutional principles are more likely to suffer from child abuse. Community level education and strengthening of the child protection services can go a long way in helping protect our children.
At the societal level lack of good governance and rule of law, rapid social changes, rigid gender roles, poverty, economic disparity, poor social and economic safety nets, easy availability of alcohol and drugs, periods of war and conflict and certain cultural norms can make children vulnerable to abuse. All of us as a whole are responsible for building a society that cares and protects its children. Legal and policy changes at this level are made by officials of higher power, however it is our duty to divert their attention to these vital issues and to drive meaningful change in society. The cultural and societal norms that contribute to abuse can only be changed through social awareness and all of us have an immense role to play in this regard.
The WHO recommends four steps including clearly defining what child abuse constitutes, identifying causes and risk factors for abuse, planning and implementing interventions aimed at minimizing such risk factors and disseminating information about successful interventions as the method to be adopted to prevent child abuse. This emphasizes the importance of having a broad and comprehensive idea of the causes and risk factors of child abuse. The world has undoubtedly come a long way in ensuring a safer world for our children, but there is still a long way to go. Let us all get together to build a world that is safer and more secure for all children!
- Handbook on child protection (2019) – NCPA