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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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Family members may also need help - for example, when parents feel guilty that they have failed to protect their child. Families may need particular support in situations where the perceived loss of their honour might lead to rejection of the child.

• All actions taken should be consistent with the principle of the child’s best interests, and in order to determine this the child’s own expressions of his/her wishes and feelings will be vital.

Where the child is alleging sexual abuse by a member of the same family (including foster family) there is an obvious danger that abuse will continue if she/he and the alleged abuser continue to live in the same household. Other siblings may also be at risk. In such situations, the best interests of the child may be in conflict with her/ his expressed views. Very careful and sensitive assessment needs to be made to determine the most appropriate course of action. These issues are discussed in more detail in Topic 9.

Whatever actions are taken, it is essential to remember that insensitive or inappropriate intervention can serve to further victimise and unnecessarily harm the child.


Overhead 8.1: Key Learning Points for Topic 8 Summary of key learning points

–  –  –


Exercises 7.1 and 7.2 can be adapted for use in connection with sexual exploitation.

Chapter 3 of UNHCR (1995): “Sexual Violence against Refugees”, Geneva, UNHCR, contains further information relevant to this topic.

–  –  –


• The concepts of child abuse and neglect are relative terms that can only be understood within their particular cultural context.

• Child abuse which contravenes cultural norms needs to be understood by reference to the characteristics of the parents (or other carers), of the child, and the nature of the wider environment.

• Various features of situations of conflict and forced migration may contribute to a rise in child abuse and neglect.

• Child abuse within the family is particularly serious because those charged with protecting him/her are failing to do so.

• Various strategies can be used to prevent child abuse and neglect.

• Responding to allegations of abuse and neglect within the family requires exceptionally skilful and sensitive work.


Child abuse and neglect have to be understood as culturally relative terms. The implications of this were discussed fully in Topic 1, which also considers different kinds of abuse and neglect. Intervention, however, requires an understanding of the relevant legal definitions of what acts of commission or omission constitute abuse and neglect, and require legal sanction. Hence it is important to understand the relevant national, regional and international legal instruments: these were considered in more detail in Topic 5.


While it is not possible to offer a definitive statement about the factors that lie behind abusive behaviour towards children, there is general agreement that child

maltreatment results from the complex interplay between three different factors:

• the particular characteristics of the parents (or other care-takers);

• the particular attributes of the individual child;

• the particular pattern of environmental and social stresses.

Research in western societies suggests that abusive parents often have some of

the following characteristics:


Abuse and Exploitation - Revision Version 04/01 Page 45 Action for the Rights of Children (ARC)

• material and/or emotional deprivation;

• poor coping mechanisms and high vulnerability to stress;

• lack of parenting skills;

• a disorganised lifestyle;

• personal immaturity - often characterised by impulsiveness, poor tolerance for frustration etc.;

• social stress and social isolation;

• unrealistically high expectations of children and rigid attitudes towards their behaviour;

• drug and/or alcohol abuse or poor health;

• low self-esteem or depression;

• single parents, in some situations, are more prone to abuse or neglect of children because, for example, of higher stress and lower income.

It must be emphasised that, while certain factors may often be present among families where abuse occurs, this does not mean that the presence of these factors will always result in abuse and neglect. What might be a cause in one family will not be a cause in another.

In different societies, certain characteristics of children may place them at particular vulnerability. A child’s age and physical, mental, emotional and social development can greatly increase or decrease the likelihood of abuse depending on the interaction of these characteristics with parental factors. Other characteristics may include, for example, the presence of a disability or disfigurement, illegitimacy or the fact of the child being unwanted (the product of rape being an extreme example), particular gender, characteristics or behaviour that lead to the child being seen as somehow “different” or “difficult”, children that result from a difficult labour, step-children, mentally or physical disabled children, and so on. Gender factors may be significant, for example, in some societies, boys tend to be more valued than girls and vice versa. Fostered children may be more at risk than the children born of the family, in relation to physical and sexual abuse and neglect.

The environmental stresses that contribute to the incidence of child abuse include poverty and food scarcity, unemployment and many different types of personal and family stress. The particular effects of conflict, and those aspects of refugee life that may enhance the potential for child abuse, are dealt with below.



There are many characteristic features of armed conflict and forced migration (including internal displacement, repatriation and resettlement) which may contribute to a rise in domestic violence and other forms of child abuse and neglect.

–  –  –

• Separation, loss and sudden change can threaten the quality of family relationships and create inter-personal tensions.

• Impoverishment can not only be highly stressful for families, it may also contribute directly to the physical neglect of children’s nutrition and health.

• Forced migration often leads to a powerful sense of loss of control over one’s life and destiny: for some men, domestic violence may be a means of reestablishing control and increasing personal power.

• Displacement, repatriation and resettlement may necessitate significant changes to the roles and responsibilities of family members, for example, unemployment or under-employment among men may create a sense of frustration and cause a collapse in identity and self-esteem. Women may be forced into taking on unfamiliar roles such as paid work outside of the family.

Single parents may be particularly affected, for example, fathers taking on unfamiliar tasks such as cooking or fetching water, or mothers having to take on more significant roles in disciplining older sons.

• Traumatic experiences – witnessing, participating in or being victims of violence, sudden flight etc. – can be highly stressful. Parents who have lost a child, or whose child has been attacked, may carry a burden of guilt for having failed to protect him or her.

• Armed conflict is a situation in which violence is resorted to on a massive scale to resolve disputes. Very often, armed conflict is associated with a breakdown in social norms and controls that can have a pervasive effect. Family solidarity may be undermined and parents and community leaders may lose the respect and authority that they previously had.

• Population movements often result in social networks being destroyed or disrupted. There is considerable evidence to show that the existence of strong social networks serves to protect children from abuse, and helps to ensure that someone will intervene when standards of care are seriously violated.

• Lack of opportunities for children to attend school may also create tensions within the family, and also denies children opportunities to confide in trusted adults outside of the family.

• One kind of stress can contribute to others: an unemployed, frustrated father may resort to alcohol, which in turn can cause stress for other members of the household.


A prime function of the family is to provide the child with the care and protection he or she needs for healthy development. An essential requirement of parents (or other care-takers) is that the child loves and trusts them. So when a parent abuses or neglects the child, this may constitute a serious breach of trust for the child, and there may be no one else for the child to turn to for help and protection.

Furthermore, because of their particular developmental stage, young children may

–  –  –

be powerless to resist or protect themselves from abusive behaviour, and may not find it possible to reveal the abuse to someone outside of the family.

Evidence from western societies suggests that abusive or neglectful behaviour towards a child is likely to continue unless, and until, its causes have been identified and addressed, or unless the risk of further abuse is minimised by the removal of either the perpetrator or the child. Any decision to remove either the abuser or the victim is likely to be highly complicated. A child who is sexually abused by her/his father is likely to continue to be abused if the father remains within the family home. Removing the father may, however, place the rest of the family at risk if, for example, he has been the sole provider or breadwinner for the family. If the child is removed, other children within the household may be at increased risk. Also, removing the child may leave him/her feeling that he/she has done something wrong and is being punished. It is not always easy for the nonabusing parent to protect the child, especially if this is the mother who may, for example, be afraid for her own safety. The immediate protection of a child abused within the family is always the most urgent priority.

Another significant feature of child abuse within the family, as identified in western societies, is that it is not uncommon for abused children to grow into abusing adults. For example, there is a risk that boys who have been victims or long-term sexual abuse may later become abusers themselves, while emotionally neglected children may grow up without the personal knowledge of the importance of love and affection, which may have a negative effect on their own parenting skills.


Although it is of obvious importance to respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect and to ensure protection for the child, a strategy to draw attention to the problem of maltreatment and to prevent or diminish its occurrence may often be an urgent priority. Experience in many countries suggests that where public attention is drawn to the problem, and the secrecy which often surrounds it is broken, it becomes more possible to “see” the problem and its scale (see ARC Resource Pack on Situation Analysis, Exercise 5.1). Greater public awareness also makes it possible for abused or neglected children to draw attention to their plight, and for other concerned people to identify the problem and to respond. In situations in which agencies are concerned about a potentially large, but mainly hidden, problem of child abuse and neglect, public awareness campaigns, designed to draw attention to the issue and to turn it into a public rather than private matter may be an early priority.

A preventive strategy may have three components that mirror the causes of child abuse and neglect.

1. Identify which children are most vulnerable: for example, children who are disabled or in some manner are seen as “different”, fostered children etc. It may then be possible to devise strategies for monitoring their well-being.

2. Identify and address those factors which may lead to parents (or other carers) maltreating their children. Ensuring food security may be the most essential step, but other strategies may include supporting single-parent families, responding to issues of alcohol abuse (which is often associated with domestic violence and child abuse).


Abuse and Exploitation - Revision Version 04/01 Page 48 Action for the Rights of Children (ARC)

3. Identify and respond to the most widespread environmental stresses. In the context of forced migration, social isolation and the lack of support networks can be a major factor.


Detecting child abuse is particularly difficult in societies in which child rearing is seen as a private, family matter, not one of public concern. For the children themselves, they may have no other reference point and not realise that what they are experiencing is abnormal. Furthermore, in conflict and refugee situations, it is unlikely that professional staff such as health workers, teachers and social or community workers will have the opportunity to identify signs of abuse, or even to have had any training in this extremely difficult area.

Physical neglect is most likely to be detected by health workers. Often the biggest clue is either that the child is failing to thrive and grow in a way that is out of proportion to the level of available nutrition, or in a way that distinguishes the child from other children within the family.

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