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«Action for the Rights of Children (ARC) Critical Issues Abuse and Exploitation CONTENTS BRIEFING NOTES FOR FACILITATORS Page Introduction Topic 1: ...»

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• There may be other forms of exploitation and abuse that are specific to particular contexts.

While there has been a growing recognition within UNHCR of the issues of the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children (for example, during flight, in camp situations and by members of the armed forces or groups), there has been very little focus on issues of child abuse and exploitation within the broader context, including within the family. Evidence from some countries suggests that there can be a close association between violence against women and violence towards children.


A series of working definitions are presented here but, as this topic will outline, abuse and exploitation are relative concepts that need to be understood in relation to personal values, cultural and community standards as well as international standards.

The term child abuse is generally used to describe an act of commission that is

outside of accepted cultural norms. It can include:

• physical abuse, the deliberate use of force on a child’s body which may result in injury, e.g. hitting, burning, shaking, choking;

• Sexual abuse, should be understood not only as violent sexual assault but also other sexual activities, including inappropriate touching, where the child does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent, or for which the child ________________________________________

Abuse and Exploitation - Revision Version 04/01 Page 6 Action for the Rights of Children (ARC) is not developmentally prepared.

• emotional abuse, persistent attacks on a child’s sense of self, e.g. constant belittling, taunting or humiliation, isolation and intimidation.

Child neglect is rather an act of omission, the failure to provide for the child’s basic

needs. Again this can include:

• physical neglect, the failure to adequately meet the child’s needs for, for example, nutrition, clothing, health care, and protection from harm; and/or

• emotional neglect, the failure to satisfy the developmental needs of a child by denying the child an appropriate level of affection, care, education and security.

Although different forms of abuse and neglect are recognised, it is important to remember that a child experiencing one form may also be experiencing other forms as well.

Exploitation is the abuse of a child where some form of remuneration is involved or whereby the perpetrators benefit in some manner – monetarily, socially, politically, etc. Exploitation constitutes a form of coercion and violence, detrimental to the child’s physical and mental health, development, and education.


Certain types of behaviour towards children would be considered to be abusive and unacceptable in all societies: for example, the rape of a young child or beating a child to the point of sustaining serious physical injury. But other types of behaviour might be considered abusive in some societies but not in others. For example, induced bleeding which is thought to have beneficial health effects would be acceptable in some cultures but might be deemed abusive especially from the standpoint of westernised cultures. On the other hand, such practices as isolating infants in rooms of their own to sleep at night, or allowing them to cry without immediately comforting them are common in some western societies but considered abusive in others. Similarly, some cultural practices such as painful initiation ceremonies are considered abusive from some standpoints, but in societies where they are commonly practised it would be contravening cultural norms to attempt to “protect” a child from them and to deny him or her a place as an adult in the society. In the realm of physical chastisement – such as spanking or slapping – for unacceptable behaviour, societal norms differ widely. On the other hand, some traditional practices – notably female genital mutilation – clearly contravene international human rights instruments.

With regard to the physical neglect of children, the systematic under-nourishment of one particular child might be considered as culpable neglect in some contexts.

On the other hand, in situations in which there are severe and chronic food shortages, it is not uncommon for parents to concentrate their investment in some children at the expense of others. This is a familiar situation in feeding centres in some refugee camps. It is vital that the total context is considered before labelling such behaviour as neglectful and culpable.

Before defining particular behaviour towards a child as abusive, it is important to understand cultural norms and not impose alien norms and standards. The term “idiosyncratic child abuse” is used to describe behaviour towards a child that falls

–  –  –

outside of a culture’s accepted range of behaviours. In defining behaviour as abusive within its cultural context, it may be helpful to consider the following three


• the socialisation goals of the particular culture;

• parental intentions and convictions in their beliefs;

• the way the child perceives his or her treatment.

Practices which are generally considered as acceptable within a particular society, but which are considered abusive or inappropriate by external standards – such as painful initiation ceremonies, or severe physical chastisement – may be a legitimate cause for concern on the part of international and local agencies.

However, intervention should address the concern as a public issue and should not be used to label individuals as abusive or deviant.

Unfortunately, most of the research and literature on idiosyncratic child abuse has been based in western societies1. Recent decades have seen a rapid increase in the awareness of child abuse in western societies, and in turn this has revealed child abuse to be a much more widespread phenomenon than was previously believed. Evidence from non-western societies seems to suggest that child abuse is much less common, but whether this reflects the relative absence of the phenomenon, or lack of awareness of it, is difficult to determine. In societies in which children are seen as the property of their parents, or in which their care is seen as a purely private matter and not a public concern, it is more likely that abusive behaviour, if it does exist, will attract little attention or concern.


It is important to avoid the blanket application of the concept of “vulnerability” to large categories of children (e.g. street children, female-headed households, working children). However, particular economic, social, political or cultural circumstances can imply increased vulnerability for certain children to a variety of exploitative practices. Conflict and displacement, compounded by an erosion of traditional values and cultural norms, create situations where children are at increased risk of exploitation - for example, under-age recruitment, trafficking and smuggling, and exploitative child labour. Some aspects of exploitation may be relatively “hidden” to personnel working in refugee contexts, such as refugee children recruited into armed forces, or drawn into the labour markets of cities (e.g.

working and/or living on the street, prostitution and domestic work). It would be especially important to know if there was any organised exploitation - for example, trafficking which may be disguised as children crossing borders as “domestic workers”, when in fact they are being sold into the sex trade.

It may be helpful to consider what factors in the situation(s) under consideration result in children being exploited. In many contexts, the presence of certain risk factors and the absence of certain protective factors may heighten the child’s vulnerability to other risks. So, for example, separated children may be at increased risk of sexual exploitation, while sexual exploitation may serve to heighten the risk of recruitment into armed forces. As well, poverty is a major cause of child work such as domestic labour, and a child domestic worker may be at increased risk of sexual abuse.


Abuse and Exploitation - Revision Version 04/01 Page 8 Action for the Rights of Children (ARC) Although child labour and sexual violence may be the main forms of exploitation affecting children, other situations are sometimes encountered. For example, in Burundi, other family members or neighbours sometimes expropriate orphaned children’s property. A second example is the exploitation of children in adult prisons, including sexual, labour and material (e.g. food rations) exploitation.

Another example, which might easily be overlooked, is the sexual abuse of children by other children. In situations where HIV and AIDS are very prevalent, teenage boys may look to increasingly younger girls as their partners. In the UK it has recently been estimated that 40% of instances of child sexual abuse are committed by other children. It is important to bear in mind that many children who exploit or abuse other children may themselves have been victims of abuse and exploitation and will, therefore, have needs (i.e. for psychosocial recovery) which need to be addressed in an age-appropriate manner which respects their rights.

Facilitators may like to encourage participants to identify examples of types of abuse or exploitation that are situation-specific, and consider possible responses.

Overhead 1.2 can be used as a means of identifying different influences on what may be determined to be abuse or exploitation, and this can be linked with Exercise 1.1, which can be used to illustrate the issues involved in such a judgement.


In many societies, almost all children undertake work, for example within the home or on the family’s land. Many consider that work – within certain limits – contributes to children’s development and education, especially if that work can be combined with education. In some situations, the family can only afford school fees if the child works. On the other hand, certain types of work are unquestionably exploitative - e.g. bonded labour and work which is harmful to the child’s health or wellbeing.

In determining whether children’s work in a particular context should be considered as exploitative, it is important to examine the totality of the children’s

situation. It will be important to consider such factors as:

• the age of the child;

• the hours spent working each day;

• the level of physical or psychosocial stress work creates;

• the conditions of work;

• the amount of pay;

• the level of responsibility;

• whether the child attends school;

• the level of dignity/self-esteem children maintain;

• whether work contributes to or harms the child’s psychosocial and physical development.

–  –  –

This list is presented in Overhead 1.3.

In any given situation, it is important not to make blanket assumptions, but rather to decide what is in the individual child’s best interest. In order to do this, the child’s own perceptions and opinions will be of central importance. The issue of whether the child’s work prevents him/her from attending school – or whether it facilitates it – is a particularly important one.

These issues are considered in more detail in Topic 3.

Some argue that the term “child labour” should be avoided on the grounds that it only conjures up images of the most harmful and exploitative forms of work and does not take into consideration work which is beneficial to a child’s development.

This is why terms such as “child work” or “children and adolescent livelihood issues” are sometimes used in place of “child labour”.


The term sexual exploitation can cover a multitude of situations or practices. It will be important that participants are aware of this and agree on a working definition that is appropriate to the regional context. Part of such an exercise could focus on how to raise awareness of the issue and a consideration of what might be cultural/societal constraints influencing such an exercise. This should be linked to the section on identifying children at risk of sexual abuse/exploitation.

It is important that the term “sexual exploitation” refers to all children up to the age of 18; issues of locally-defined “age of consent” are not relevant to the child’s right to protection.

In UNHCR's statement to the Consultation on the World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm, the term "sexual violence" covers all forms of sexual threat, assault, interference and exploitation.

The term "rape" refers to instances where the victim's resistance is overcome by force or fear or under coercive conditions.

The Congress defined commercial sexual exploitation as a practice that implies not only sexual abuse of a child but remuneration in cash or in kind. In some situations, sex may be extorted for protection, crossing borders etc. Commercial sexual exploitation covers prostitution, trafficking and pornography. The child’s level of understanding may be a significant issue (e.g. a mentally disabled 16 year old). It may also be appropriate for facilitators to introduce cultural practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation. These are issues that are highly dependent on context, and the participants will be the experts and sources of information. It may be helpful to specify experiences of abuse/exploitation related to conflict situations, and those that may be more general and related to the vulnerability of certain children, and the circumstances that define this vulnerability.

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