By Vincent Lyn
The World Health Organization(WHO) defines child abuse and child maltreatment as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment 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 of responsibility, trust or power.” The WHO also says, “Violence against children includes all forms of violence against people under 18 years old, whether perpetrated by parents or other caregivers, peers, romantic partners, or strangers.” As of 2006, the World Health Organization distinguishes four types of child maltreatment: physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional (or psychological) abuse; and neglect.
Two centuries ago, cruelty to children, perpetrated by employers and teachers, was widespread, and corporal punishment customary in many countries. But, in the first half of the 19th century, pathologists studying filicide (the parental killing of children) reported cases of death from paternal rage, recurrent physical maltreatment, starvation, and sexual abuse. In 1860, a key paper gathered together a series of 32 such cases, of which 18 were fatal, the children dying from starvation and/or recurrent physical abuse; it included the case of Adeline Defert, who was returned by her grandparents at the age of 8, and for 9 years tortured by her parents — whipped every day, hung up by her thumbs and beaten with a nailed plank, burnt with hot coals and her wounds bathed in nitric acid, and her hymen ruptured with a baton. Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (10 April 1818 – 12 January 1879) was a French medical doctor and the pre-eminent forensic medical scientist who made home visits and observed the effect on the children; he noticed that the sadness and fear on their faces disappeared when they were placed under protection. He commented, “When we consider the tender age of these poor defenseless beings, subjected daily and almost hourly to savage atrocities, unimaginable tortures and harsh privation, their lives one long martyrdom — and when we face the fact that their tormentors are the very mothers who gave them life, we are confronted with one of the most appalling problems that can disturb the soul of a moralist, or the conscience of justice”. His observations were echoed by Boileau de Castélnau (who introduced the term misopédie — hatred of children).
Child abuse is a global problem with serious life-long consequences. In spite of recent national surveys in several low- and middle-income countries, data from many countries are still lacking. Child maltreatment is complex and difficult to study. Current estimates vary widely depending on the country and the method of research used. Nonetheless, international studies reveal that nearly 3 in 4 children — or 300 million children — aged 2–4 years regularly suffer physical punishment and/or psychological violence at the hands of parents and caregivers, and 1 in 5 women and 1 in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child. 120 million girls and young women under 20 years of age have suffered some form of forced sexual contact.
Consequences of child abuse include impaired lifelong physical and mental health, and the social and occupational outcomes can ultimately slow a country’s economic and social development. A child who is abused is more likely to abuse others as an adult so that violence is passed down from one generation to the next.
Every year, there are an estimated 40,150 homicide deaths in children under 18 years of age, some of which are likely due to child maltreatment. This number almost certainly underestimates the true extent of the problem, since a significant proportion of deaths due to child maltreatment are incorrectly attributed to falls, burns, drowning and other causes. In armed conflict and refugee settings, girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse by combatants, security forces, members of their communities, aid workers and others.
An estimated total of 205,153 children aged 0 to 14 years lost their lives worldwide as a result of homicide during the ten-year period 2008–2017. Of these, roughly six in ten were male (59 per cent) and four in ten were female (41 per cent). Over the same period, an estimated total of 1,691,869 adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 29 were intentionally killed. Around 86 per cent of these were male and 14 per cent were female. The rate of lethal victimization as a whole rises with age, while gender disparities in homicide rates increase sharply after the age of 14. Child homicide constitutes the lethal end of a long continuum of violence against children. Globally, it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect in 2017. Violence against children differs from other crimes because of the vulnerability of its victims. Research suggests that killings of young children are perpetrated mainly by family members, and that, among other factors, they can be ascribed to gender stereotypes, family violence and mental health problems of the parents.
The presence of stepchildren in the home and the separation or estrangement of parents are known to be risk factors for family violence, particularly lethal violence. These factors appear to be playing a growing role in filicide. In terms of factors at the community level that contribute to child homicide, violence can occur in urban areas characterized by poverty, discrimination, overcrowding, lack of education and poor standards of housing. Estimates indicate that approximately 300 million children under the age of 5 years have been exposed to societal or community violence. Such exposure often leaves children trapped in a cycle of violence and aggressiveness, which can lead to future violent behavior, including delinquency, violent crime, urban crime and affiliation to youth gangs.
Children are more likely to be killed in their own home by members of the their own family than anywhere else, or by anyone else in society.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts