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The ugly face of the subtler forms of child abuse
Chinga Govhati
June 10, 2013

When one talks about child abuse, the most obvious types come to mind. These are sexual and to some extent, physical abuses. These are no doubt very serious types of abuse hence the high media profile given them. But in my interaction with children, and those who represent them or their interests, I have come to appreciate the extensive harm that can be caused by subtler forms of abuse. These are emotional abuse, mental abuse, neglect, and exposure to harm or abuse of a child’s inheritance. What is disturbing is that most of these abuses go undetected and unreported, or where they are detected, children suffering such abuses fail to get adequate assistance to alleviate their suffering.

I have just received an anonymous call from a young boy or girl. The child was clearly distraught but failed to give me any meaningful information. He or she indicated that their mother was starving them. They would go for a day or two without food and when their mother decided to feed them, the food was very little and she would not serve it on plates, but on any piece of paper. According to the young voice, when the children complained to ‘the office’ nothing was done. The use of ‘office’ by the caller made me think that s/he was probably a child from an institution such as an orphanage, but this is conjecture. The caller refused to give any further information and went offline.

Where was I supposed to start in my quest to assist this child? This is probably the predicament that most people who receive reports of child abuse face. The challenges include failing to get adequate information from those who know more about the abuse. The reasons may include fear of further exposing the suffering child or fear of exposure on the part of the person who is aware of the abuse. The affected child may even deny that he is being abused. I have heard of cases where a child suffers even worse abuse if someone else tries to intervene. Such children include orphans and those living with step-parents, mostly stepmothers. In some cases, the child cannot even tell their father that they are being abused because either the father will also beat the child up, or the stepmother will make life hell for the child if the father confronts her over the allegations.

Most orphans are thus forced to suffer quietly, resulting in a withdrawn child who may grow into an unstable adult. I have also come across children who have watched their own parents being abused, children who have seen their step-siblings getting the best of everything while they suffer, children who go to school hungry or cold simply because their own parents and caregivers put their own interests above the child’s.

For some children, it gets even more desperate. Relatives, who come to occupy their late parents’ home in the guise of looking after the orphan, become monsters to the orphaned child and abuse them. Their own children may enjoy better freedom with the orphan’s inheritance at the expense of the rightful owner. Scenarios of extreme abuse include letting out the orphan’s home making the child homeless, changing ownership of the property to the prejudice of the surviving child, making the child believe that if they complain, some untold harm will be perpetrated on them by their dead parents, or even clandestinely selling the property after taking advantage of the child’s lack of capacity and immaturity. Most children only become aware of such prejudice when they become adults and sometimes fail to find adequate information on what exactly transpired. In other cases, surviving relatives fight over custody and guardianship of a dead relative’s child, not because they care for the child, but because they want to have easy access to the child’s inheritance.

When the courts deal with matters pertaining to deceased estates, they are not usually guided by child protection principles such as the best interests of the child and hearing the child’s views as is done in most cases involving children. This is usually so because children may not be directly involved or be the subject matter of a deceased estate. Greedy relatives and stepparents take advantage of this. A number of stepmothers sell the property that they never sweated to acquire and leave the children of their deceased spouses homeless. Unlike in other cases involving children, there may be no requirement to have a proper enquiry or a report from the department of social services about what would be best for a surviving child, resulting in uncaring people taking advantage of a vulnerable child.

Other forms of abuse include failure or refusal to provide maintenance for a child by a parent or guardian, failure or refusal to register a child as soon as it is born, discriminating against a child on the basis of gender, disability or other status and using the child to fight adult battles. This is the case where parents fight over custody of their child in order to seek revenge and not because this would be in the best interest of the child. Using the child as a bargaining chip, for whatever reason, is the ultimate exploitation. Adults are urged to fight their own battles without involving the child or to the prejudice of the child.

An allegation of abuse should never be treated lightly. A child who is in any abusive set-up requires the concerted assistance of us all.

Get involved

  • Neighbours and concerned relatives should not fear to speak up on behalf of an abused child
  • Children themselves need to be empowered to speak out on behalf of each other and not allow themselves to be used as tools of abuse against another vulnerable child by adults (which is an elementary aspect of responsible citizenry)
  • The Department of Social Services needs to be strengthened in order to make child protection a reality for all orphaned and vulnerable children
  • Parents and caregivers need to be sensitised about the effects of abuse on children in their custody and care and provisions of the laws (including the new constitution) in place to protect children.

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