By Rhea Kumar:
She walks to school with the lunch she packed
Nobody knows what she’s holdin’ back
Wearin’ the same dress she wore yesterday
She hides the bruises with linen and lace
The teacher wonders but she doesn’t ask
It’s hard to see the pain behind the mask
Bearing the burden of a secret storm
Sometimes she wishes she was never born
(From the Song ‘Concrete Angel’ by Martina McBride)
When one thinks of child abuse; pedophilia, child labor, sexual abuse and corporal punishment in schools is what comes to mind.Â Statistics about the increasing number of incidents of child sexual abuse, child trafficking and child labor are quoted day after day on glossy magazine covers and the standard news ticker on TV channels. Yet, we tend to overlook another form of violence against children, not as ubiquitous as the others but far more shocking and dangerous. It may manifest itself in a subtle remark, a softly worded threat or in something as extreme as burn marks on a child’s body. The problem is that of parental bullying.
The central issue with parental bullying or parental abuse of children is that most of us do not recognize it as a problem at all. It is often overlooked, excused or even justified as ‘corrective action’ or ‘strict disciplining’ or some other similar euphemism. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ has been the traditional norm followed in India. In my opinion, it qualifies as one of the most misunderstood and misused quotes. That piece of `wisdom’ needs to be understood and followed in spirit, rather than the letter, implying that children do need to be disciplined, sometimes by physical punishment if necessary, but not beaten black and blue or burned with cigarette stubs and hot objects! The point of disciplining children is to make them see right from wrong, not to make them live in fear.
The Indian couple in Norway, Chandrashekhar and Anupama, who were recently convicted for abusing their seven-year-old son, is a case in point. The couple was accused of terrorizing, burning and repeatedly hitting their seven-year-old son with a belt for wetting his pants in the school bus. When the child complained to his teacher, the Norway police arrested the parents and the court sentenced the father and mother to 18 and 15 months respectivelyÂ in jail. Shockingly, the case elicited protests from some sections of Indian society, who alleged that Norway was trying to interfere in India’s culture and that, in India, it is legitimate for parents to choose whatever means they want to discipline their children. Besides, in this particular case, the child had a clear problem and it was natural for the parents to become frustrated from time to time. And after all, our ancient Hindu scriptures say ‘Bhoomi Gareyasi Maata, Swargaat Uchattaraha Pita’Â (the mother is larger than the earth, and the father is higher than the heavens).Â Parents ultimately know what is best for their children. Now, how would child authorities in Norway be expected to understand the depth of these traditions?
Well, maybe the authorities in Norway do not understand the Sanskrit shloka referred to above. Â And they might not be familiar with Indian traditions either. But what the Norwegian authorities do know and what every citizen of Indian society should know is that there is a clear distinction between disciplining your child and subjecting him to repeated violence and threats. Hitting a helpless child with belts and other sharp objects and inflicting burns with a hot spoon is tantamount to serious parental abuse and cannot be defended or condoned under any circumstances.
Abuse by a primary caregiver damages the most fundamental relationship that a child treasures and has a devastating effect on the mental and emotional well being of the child. Children trust their parents implicitly and completely. They love them, worship them and idolize them. They can never imagine in their wildest dreams that their parents will harm them in any way. They grow well in a protected environment that offers them structure and rules. Can we even begin to understand how the child’s psyche will alter when the person they feel closest to suddenly begins to hit, burn, torture and intimidate them? The world suddenly becomes an unpredictable and terrible place for them and they don’tÂ know who to turn to for help.
The tragedy is that in many cases, children will continue to adore an abusive parent simply because they don’t really understand the cause of the parent’s behavior and merely end up blaming themselves for some lapse or omission that has led to thisÂ behavior.Â In the longer term, the child may withdraw into a shell and shun interaction with other people, fearing similar disappointment and betrayal from them. Several studies have shown that physical and psychological abuse of young children will manifest itself later in diverse ways: depression, low self-esteem, aggression, antisocial behavior and a tendency towards violent and criminal activity.
So, are we saying that parents who abuse their child are essentially evil people who are incapable of looking after their children?Â Absolutely not. We can only conclude that something goes wrong along the way; their own pressures, frustrations and perhaps misguided beliefs about parental authority make them behave in this manner. Parents of children with special needs, such as the seven year old in Norway, are even more prone to this kind ofÂ behavior.Â While we sympathize with these parents, we mustÂ recognizeÂ that they need counselling and professional help to correct their deviantÂ behavior. More importantly, such parents must accept that they need help. It is not fair on their child to bear the brunt of whatever has gone wrong in the parents’ lives.
But even before that, society needs to recognize the existence of this problem and the urgent need for a solution. Child abuse is a criminal charge in India but weak laws and even weaker enforcement have let it function unfettered. Children are provided with the right to early childhood care and protection of childhood against moral or material abandonment under Articles 39 (f) and 45 of the Indian Constitution. However, these articles are part of the Directive Principles of State Policy and are neither guaranteed nor legally enforceable, unlike other Fundamental Rights. Clearly, the first step is strengthening the laws against parental abuse and secondly, putting in place a grievance redressal mechanism through sensitization of the police, child protection agencies and courts.
And thirdly and perhaps most importantly, our own mindset towards such instances of parental abuse must change. So, the next time we see a parent abusing their child, we must not look the other way and ‘mind our own business’. It is our business, as responsible citizens, to ensure that children grow up in a safe and loving environment, free from fear and trauma. The child needs our help. You and I may be his/her last hope.