It is easy to overlook the idea of protecting a child because there is the perception that children are vulnerable hence protecting them should come naturally.
Indeed, children by their very nature are still in their formative years and the slightest obstruction to the formative process can cause lasting damage to their adult life. We may be flogging a dead horse thinking children receive all the protection they need, similarly, we may be surprised that the very caregivers or guidance could inadvertently renege in their responsibility in protecting the child due to inadequate information about what it means to protect them.
There is no absolute guide on how to protect children – but then, there are certain signposts that can serve as guides to individuals and institutions who have taken it upon themselves the responsibility to care for children. The intention is to offer the tools needed to open discussions around child protection.
Understanding the fundamental issues concerning child protection will help us interact with children more confidently, which means any problem can be managed or dealt with more effectively by knowing what to do should something go wrong.
It will also empower young people to know their rights to help themselves to stay safe.
Physical abuse might be the most visible sign of child abuse however, there are others such as emotional abuse which is hard to see concrete evidence; even though it does not mean the abuse has not occurred. Oftentimes, children who get abused are more likely to express themselves using non-verbal signs which can be incoherent. For instance, a child can deny reporting the abuse or completely change what they have said not because they lied, but they may be scared about the repercussions of reporting the incident. It is a dicey situation at times because such posture may cause you to doubt your judgement. At this point, consulting with an identified Child Protection lead is crucial, but again it is also important to have a fair knowledge of the signs of child abuse so that you can address the doubts and gain confidence to act on the abuse.
Some psychologists have observed that children have influences, levels of resilience and personalities, accordingly, they respond differently to similarly abusive situations. While each case of child abuse is individual and specific to the situation, there are certain recognisable physical and behavioural signs that may suggest an abuse may have taken place. However, if there is a single sign, then that may not always mean the child may have been abused – child abuse is likely to have happened when signs occur repeatedly.
Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. And because we come into contact with children, we need to be aware of signs and symptoms of child abuse – parents, teachers, caregivers especially are better placed to observe the signs.
Physical abuse may have occurred if the child is always on constant alert, as though something foreboding is about to happen. Or having frequent welts on the body and wearing inappropriate attire to cover up injuries (such as a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day), the child flinches at sudden movements or appears afraid to go home.
Neglect is another silent form of child abuse. This can manifest in the child putting on ill-fitting or inappropriate clothes, hygiene is terribly bad, untreated illnesses and physical injuries, others may include being allowed to play in an unsafe place and frequently late or missing from school.
There is no concrete evidence that emotional abuse has occurred but the signs may include the child being excessively withdrawn, fearful or anxious about doing something wrong, the child is detached from the parents or caregiver; also delays in emotional or intellectual growth are signs of emotional abuse.
Signs of sexual abuse can be explicit when the child is observed even casually. For instance, a child having trouble walking or sitting, not willing to participate in physical activities, runs away from home…what could be more disturbing is that some people consider displaying knowledge of sexual act or even dancing in a sexually suggestive way as a sign that the child has inherent dancing talent – this can actually expose the child to perverts if they were not already.
In rare situations, a child can voluntarily report an abuse. How should we handle such disclosure? It is normal to feel furor over the issue but you should not allow yourself to be overwhelmed because that can make the otherwise bold child to completely recoil into their shells. Instead, be more receptive; listen to the child without showing shock, accept the complaint without being judgemental and take it seriously. You can also be reassuring but try not to make promises that cannot be kept – do not agree to keep secrets. You can tell the child that you would tell a few people whose job is to protect them. Appreciate the child’s initiative to talk to you about the abuse. Tell them you understand how difficult it must have been to talk about it.
In communicating with the child who has been abused, listen to them with rapt attention and patiently. Allow the child to explain what happened in their own words without asking leading question. You may ask open-ended questions such as,
‘Is there anything else that you want to tell me?’. More importantly, communicate with the child in a way that is appropriate to their age and understanding.
It is the responsibility of the law enforcement agency such as the police to investigate an abuse. Taking matters into our hands investigating, interrogating or deciding if the child is telling the truth will obstruct and jeopardise official investigation.
Child abuse can be preempted or its impact can be minimised if we are proactive. As parents or guardian, having regular open discussions with the child about what they can do if they feel uncomfortable with a situation, watching movies or reading a novel about child abuse and bringing them up for casual discussions and the likes have also proven useful ways of preventing an abuse. Certainly, every school and home that give care to children should have a child protection policy and staff should be made to sign them as part of their appointment.
Awareness about the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) can be created among caregivers, parents, teachers and children. For instance, the school can create a poster about a series of statements telling the children how the school views and treats all children, a clear statement about how the school will listen to a child and take their concerns seriously and advice for children about reaching out to the school for help.
Institutions having children under their care, including Sunday schools, should have a code of conduct which should clearly spell out the child’s rights and responsibilities. The code may also encompass issues such as how to treat one another, relate to adults, how to deal with problems and how to make choices and decisions.
The issues discussed are by no means exhaustive. They are not a complete guide to how to protect the child; the intention is to get all of us talking about the issues raised thereby creating awareness of the need for child protection.
The writer is an educationist and development communication practitioner