D C I - Zimbabwe

 Zimbabwe Child Rights Defenders    

Child abuse

One of the most distressing violations of children's rights is child abuse.

Child abuse is not only the sexual abuse of children but is any hurt to a child.  Children can be hurt  physically and emotionally in various ways particularly through neglect of their need for love and attention. They can be abused intellectually when their need of mental development is not met. 

But a child is also a whole person, and any form of abuse affects him or her emotionally, in cognitive thinking ability and also in his or her physical powers.  For example, a child who has been burnt, deliberately, with boiling oil, by an adult in the home, has severe physical injuries and is also emotionally traumatised, and as a result cannot think clearly and regresses intellectually.

When you suspect something is wrong
As a parent, care-giver or teacher you may suspect that a child is having problems and is perhaps a victim of child abuse from his or her behaviour. The following are warning signs that something might be wrong:

  • Marked changes in behaviour - becoming suddenly aggressive or withdrawn or dependent. 
  • Becoming clinging, and fearful, especially of adults. 
  • Inappropriate knowledge of sexuality for their age shown in language or action. 
  • Regressing to a 'younger' behaviour such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting and baby-talk. 
  • The child may seem generally unhappy and worried, or overly anxious to please. 
  • A sudden deterioration in the standard of school work. 
  • Refusal to go to school and even fear of going out of the house. 
  • The child might be very restless or tired and show an inability to concentrate.

Remember that these symptoms can also be the signs of other problems - bullying, for example, or bereavement in the family, or a new baby, or even a loss of hearing due to an infection.

Physical warning signs of sexual abuse:  

  • Vaginal discharge or lower abdominal pains or pain in the genital area 
  • Frequent or persistent urinary infections 
  • Persistent stomach pains or even persistent headaches 
  • Bruises or injuries that the child does not explain satisfactorily. 
  • Loss of appetite - or compulsive eating 
  • Restlessness - or being languid and "sleepy"

These symptoms can also be the signs of other problems and not just abuse - an infection, for example. Or there may not be any obvious sign of abuse but you feel instinctively that something is not right. In any of these cases you should talk to ChildLine, a social worker or mental health professional. You have a legal obligation to report any suspected child abuse.

It is equally important to report a person if you suspect they are abusing children. Many perpetrators can be helped and all should be stopped one way or another

Be watchful and ready to hear about abuse 

Families and caring adults should show that they are open and ready to listen to children.  A child who needs help or who knows of a friend who needs help will often make tentative remarks to see if the adult is sympathetic.  If the adult cuts them short they will not continue, but if the adult is encouraging, the full story will gradually emerge (often over several days).

When a child talks to you about a trauma 
A child may not share the full story all at once. But if a child shares his or her pain with you, remember the following:

  • Remain calm. Control your feeling of shock or disgust. The child has enough to deal with her own feelings, without taking on your feelings! 
  • Show the child that you care and are listening.  An abused child may not want any physical touching and you need to be sensitive to this. 
  • Show that you believe her/him by your words and actions. 
  • If you feel able, let the child know that you are available for further talks. 
  • Be open to realising that a child may be different from what you may have previously believed. You may find for example that an attention-seeking child is not over-confident or 'cheeky' but is behaving like that in order to try to cope with hurt. Trust the child! 
  • Be aware that the child may feel that the hurt (abuse, neglect, violence) is their fault. Reinforce that it is not their fault if an adult hurt them - there are laws and rules that say adults may never hurt a child. 
  • Affirm what the child is telling you, for example by repeating what you understand the child to have said or implied:  'I hear you saying …' 
  • Let the child talk at his/her own pace. Allow long periods of silence if that is what the child seems to need. 
  • When a question seems needed, make it open ended, allowing for different answers and not just yes or no: 'What happened then?' 
  • Let the children know that you will try to protect them and that they are not alone. 
  • Do not make promises you cannot keep - like promising not telling anyone. But gently let the child know what you plan to do. 
  • Write down later what the child has said to you. You may have a legal responsibility to be a witness (to testify), if there is a court case. Write down what the child said using the child's own words, noting the way it was said (tears, anger, fear) and the child's demeanour (not looking up, hiding face, curling up the body). Also write down why you believe the child - this can include your own inner feeling. 
  • Get help from an appropriate source. This may be a social worker, a Guidance Teacher or a therapist. 
  • If you are caring for the child, make sure the environment (home or classroom) is friendly and pleasant for the child, but do not single him/her out from the other children for special attention - let the child feel part of the normal group.

Helping a child talk
We can help a child to talk about abuse if we know why children are reluctant to talk. Some of the reasons may be these:

  • Not wanting to upset loved family members. One four year old said 'Don’t tell my granny as it will make her cry!' These children need reassurance that the family members really do want to know so that they can help and protect the child.
  • Guilt. Children who have been hurt by adults need to be told that it is the adult who is at fault and not them.

Children have the right to be safe and protected and adults may not abuse them.

  • Shame. Children who have the idea that sex is wrong and dirty will feel deep shame about abuse and will not want to break the rule that 'We do not talk about such things'.
  • Fear. Children may be frightened that the perpetrator will hurt them or their families or that adults will be cross with them. 
  • Keeping a promise. The perpetrator often persuades the child to promise secrecy. The child needs to know that such promises are wrong and should not be kept. 
  • Bribery. The perpetrator may promise wonderful things to the child if the secret is kept. 
  • Enjoyment. Children may also be kept quiet because they enjoy being 'loved' and spoilt by the perpetrator.  Children may find physical pleasure in sexual intercourse, especially if it is ongoing and they have been 'prepared' by the perpetrator (often over years of abuse).  Guilt and anger surface later, as the child becomes aware that the relationship is an abusive one. 
  • Family love. The child may keep quiet when the perpetrator is a loved father, uncle or grandfather. 
  • Poverty. Older children may know that the family is dependent financially on the perpetrator who is the only breadwinner.

Identifying a child who needs expert help:

There are cases of trauma that a loving parent or knowledgeable teacher cannot help on their own. These are children that do not improve or 'get over' the trauma and after several months still cannot function normally at home or at school. The outward signs of trauma remain severe several months later: such as acute depression, severe antisocial and aggressive behaviour, prolonged bouts of weeping, refusal to leave the home, anxiety attacks and flash-back episodes where the survivor relives the trauma (waking nightmares).

These children need to be referred for help to a therapist, psychiatric social worker or nurse, psychiatrist, qualified school counsellor or other professional. More information is available from DCI-Zimbabwe on mobile + 263 772 393 571.