Rings of responsibility or rings of cruelty?

[PHP Nepal Vol 2 Issue 9 Sep 2012] | Every child* has the right to protection from all forms of harm, exploitation and abuse. Child protections are the measures and structures to prevent and respond to violence, abuse and exploitation against children. 

The family is a basic unit of society and has a primary responsibility to protect a child. It should provide the best environment for meeting a child’s developmental needs. In addition to providing care and protection, the family is where a child learns how to interact with people, discover family history, language and custom of the community. Ways of caring for child may vary but almost all societies recognize that the best caretaker of a child is its parents.

World Health Organization (WHO) has defined child abuse as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship or responsibility, trust or power”. Child abuse can be viewed as a public health problem with immediate and long-term health consequences with a considerable amount of child maltreatment perpetrated by those who are close to the child. The emotional impact, although initially unrecognized, is an area of a major concern. 

Child abuse occurs across most cultures and countries. My experience in Nigeria is in consonance with global description—children are greatly abused by people they know, trust and close to them (parents, guardians, relatives, and teachers among others). Having said this, the rings of responsibility have turned to rings of cruelty, irresponsibility, violence, exploitation and even death. Varying level of child abuse occurs e.g. using the services of a child for minimal or no pay, sexual harassment, outright sexual abuse and child bride.  However, a child bride is not perceived as sexually abused as marital institution is seen as justifying the act. Sexual abuse outside the institution of marriage is not acceptable in my country, yet it does not translate to seeking for justice or even removing the child away from the environment. The family ring of responsibility is more concerned about ‘protecting the family name’. However, the family is not only to be blamed. A major factor is the loss of confidence in how the various sections of the national protection system (the institutional or national rings) respond to such case. 

Physical abuse presents a lot of debate on what is acceptable as a means of discipline— a smack or two, a knock on the head, and the use of cane (including the peppered cane). However, there is usually a consensus that an abuse has occurred when bruises are left either from the cane lashing or use of a pressing iron, though no one pays attention to the emotional impact which can have more far reaching effects. Surprisingly, some severe forms of physical abuse are generalized in my country. For example, parents put pepper (hot chilli) in the vagina of a girl when she is perceived as being ‘promiscuous’. Different forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices are perpetrated by or with the support of family members or community. Children who exhibit higher intelligence are tortured, accused of being witches and said to be responsible for poverty, ill health or any unexplainable negative experience faced by the family. The risk factors that predispose a child to abuse are ignorance, poverty, superstition, and fanatical religious beliefs among others. Poor knowledge on child development promotes child abuse while people hide behind religion to perpetrate abuse. For example, the use of cane as a form of discipline is backed by the scripture ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. 

Thus, it calls for capacity building of child protection actors, public enlightenment and children involvement in their own protection by teaching them about ‘good and bad touch’, and adult behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, and to report when faced with unacceptable behavior. Besides, the government should establish toll free hot lines to encourage reporting of child abuse, and child protection desks in institutions such as police stations, health facilities, and schools.

* For all aspects of this article a child is any human being below the age of eighteen.  

Oge Chukwudozie is a MSc student at University College London, UK.

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