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What is Child Abuse?

Children can be vulnerable by virtue of their young age and evolving capacities. They can be ‘open to’ harm, injury, violence, and abuse. Due to different circumstances and/or factors children can also be vulnerable to adverse influences and ‘at risk’ behavior. Marginalization further exacerbates vulnerability. In development settings like India, the burden of risk and vulnerability falls disproportionately on children.

What is the impact of child abuse?

Impact of child vulnerability and marginalization can be short term or long term depending on the extent, nature and severity, and other factors. The damage can also be permanent. The impact can be on the physical, emotional, social, psychological and mental health and well-being of the child.

What is Child Protection?

Child Protection is any measure or initiative that addresses or prevents children from situations of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. It refers to protecting children from or against any perceived or real danger/risk. It helps to reduce their vulnerability in harmful situations. It also means protecting children against social, psychological and emotional insecurity and distress.

Importance of Child Protection and Safety

Child Protection must ensure that no child falls out of the social security and safety net and those who do, receive necessary care and protection to be brought back into the safety net. While protection is a right of every child, some children like street children, children with disabilities, children of commercial sex workers, child labourers etc. are more vulnerable than others and need special attention. Child Protection is relevant for all settings-home, school, neighborhood, community, and institutional/ residential care.

A Child is safe and protected when

  1. A child is loved, cared for and looked after: Healthy emotional bonds with parents and strong relationships can have a lifelong impact on a child’s safety. Child safety is ensured to large extent when a child can speak to parents without having any inhibitions or doubts and when a child is accepted and respected by his/her parents and family.
  2. A child is nurtured when a child gets required food and nourishment, health facilities and education, when a child gets healthy and peaceful environment, when a child gets opportunities for his/her growth and development.
  3. Safety measures in terms of physical safety of the child are in place. For e.g. fire safety measures are established, electrical cables and wires and plug points are covered, windows have lockable grills, hav ing compound walls and security guards for big structures like societies and schools, safety measures are in place in elevators, drainage gutters are covered/closed, wells and bore wells are covered etc. Additionally human supervision and monitoring is ensured.
  4. A child is not abused physically, emotionally and sexually.
  5. When a child knows how to protect himself or herself. When parents or society build a child’s confidence by providing exposure, knowledge and information about personal safety. When a child knows whom and where to approach in case of emergencies related to their safety.
  6. When a child has faith in the structures, systems and people who are responsible for providing protection to children. When such structures and systems are set-up and are functional.

A Child is unsafe when

  1. A child is neglected, not loved or cared for, has no one to talk to. Even the thought of being deprived of love and care can make children feel unsafe.
  2. A child is discriminated in terms of gender, ability, intelligence, colour, looks, language, race, nationality, religion or in any other form.
  3. A child is physically abused. OR witnesses physical abuse and violence.
  4. A child is mentally tortured, harassed OR when child lives in a situation which is stressful. OR witnesses mental torture-abuse-harassment.
  5. A child experiences OR witnesses substance abuse.
  6. A child experiences OR witnesses verbal abuse.
  7. A child is sexually abused. OR witnesses sexual abuse.
  8. A child is exploited or cheated. As a society we are responsible to ensure that every child in our family, locality, community, region, state and nation is safe and feels safe.

What is Child Abuse? How to identify Abuse?

Child Abuse can be defined as harming (whether physically, emotionally, or sexually), ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or deprivation of any child. It is not always easy to recognise that a child is being hurt or is at risk, Some form of protection issues are visible and obvious such as a child begging on the street or child labour or physical abuse at home or substance abuse etc. In such circumstances, a child may or may not speak to you about the abuse but since it is obvious, you can immediately help the child. Steps to follow for helping such children are given in the following pages. Some protection issues tend to go undetected such as neglect, sexual abuse or emotional abuse which can be just as damaging, if not more, as physical abuse. Because of ignorance and dependency on the abusers, children often are unable to express that they are abused. As adults, it is our responsibility to observe child behaviour and encourage them to speak up. Following are indicators (signs, symptoms or clues) that when found, either on their own or in various combinations, can point to possible abuse, neglect or violence. These indicators do not necessarily prove that a child has been harmed. They alert us to the possibility of abuse having occurred and therefore that the concerned child may require help or protection. Sometimes these indicators can result from life events that do not involve abuse, such as divorce, accidental injury, the arrival of a new sibling etc.

Child Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child’s emotional, psychological or social well-being and sense of worth is continually battered. It can include a pattern of criticizing, rejecting, discriminating, degrading, ignoring, isolating, corrupting, exploiting and terrorizing a child. It may result from exposure to family violence or involvement in illegal or anti-social activities. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms of abuse occur. The effects of this form of abuse are not always immediate or visible. The long-lasting effects of emotional abuse may only become evident as a child becomes older and begins to show difficult or disturbing behaviours or symptoms.

Physical indicators in a child:

  • Bed-wetting or bed soiling that has no medical cause
  • Frequent psychosomatic complaints (eg. Headaches, nausea, abdominal pains)
  • Has not attained significant developmental milestones

Indicators in a child’s behavior:

  • Severe symptoms of self destructive behaviour – self harming, suicide attempts, engaging in drug or alcohol abuse
  • Displays attention seeking behaviours or displays extreme inhibition in play
  • When at play, behaviour may model or copy negative behaviour and language used at home
  • Suffers from severe developmental gaps
  • Severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, withdrawal or aggression

Indicators in adult behaviour:

  • Constantly labels the child or publicly humiliates the child
  • Continually threatens the child with physical harm or forces the child to witness physical harm inflicted on a loved one
  • Has unrealistic expectations of the child


Neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be: Physical – failure to provide necessary basic needs of food, shelter or clothing etc. Medical – failure to seek, obtain or follow through with medical care for the child or Abandonment – leaving a child in any situation without arranging necessary care for them and with no intention of returning. It can also be neglectful supervision and/or refusal to assume parental responsibility.

Behavioural indicators in a Child:

  • Be developmentally delayed
  • Be sick or tired most of the time
  • Inadequately supervised or left alone for unacceptable periods of time
  • Malnourished: Underweight
  • Improper care or lack of hygiene
  • Demonstrates severe lack of attachment to other adults
  • Poor school attendance or school performance
  • Poor social skills
  • Is very demanding of affection or attention
  • Has no understanding of basic hygiene

Behavioural indicators in an Adult:

  • Fails to provide for the child’s basic needs, such as housing, nutrition, medical and psychological care welts or bite marks, major fractures of the long bones or skull, to its extreme form, the death of a child.
  • Fails to enroll a child in school
  • Leaves the child home alone
  • Is overwhelmed with own problems and puts own needs ahead of the child’s needs

Physical Abuse on Child

Physical abuse can be caused from punching, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, burning or throwing the child. Physical abuse may also result from excessive or inappropriate discipline or violence within the family. Injuries to a child may vary in severity and range from minor bruising, burns, welts or bite marks, major fractures of the long bones or skull, to its most extreme form, the death of a child.

Physical indicators in a Child:

  • Unexplained bruises, welts, cuts, abrasions, Unexplained burns, Unexplained fractures
  • Injuries to areas of the body that is usually protected /covered.
  • Delay in seeking medical attention for a child

Behavioural indicators in a Child:

  • Is wary of adults or of a particular individual
  • Is violent to animals or other children
  • Tries to hide bruises or other injuries
  • May be extremely aggressive or extremely withdrawn
  • Cannot recall how the injuries occurred or gives inconsistent explanations

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes acts where an adult uses a child for a sexual purpose. While it may involve a stranger, most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. It includes, any touching for sexual purpose, fondling of breasts, buttocks, genitals, oral sex, sexual intercourse, an adult exposing themselves to the child, or seeking to have a child touch them for a sexual purpose. It also includes voyeurism, photographing children inappropriately, involving the child in pornographic activities or prostitution or using the internet and phone to initiate sexual conversations with children.

Physical indicators in a child :

  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bruises, lacerations, redness, swelling or bleeding in genital, vaginal or anal area
  • Blood in urine or faeces
  • Unusual or excessive itching or pain in the genital or anal area
  • Difficulty in sitting and/or walking
  • Signs of sexually transmitted disease Indicators in a child’s behaviour:
  • Age-inappropriate sexual play with toys, self, others
  • Sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge
  • Nightmares, sleeping problems
  • Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
  • Becoming unusually secretive
  • Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure
  • Regressing to younger behaviours, e.g. bedwetting
  • Fear of certain places or persons e.g. bedroom or bathroom, friend-uncle
  • Eating disorders
  • Outburst of anger
  • Self-harm (cutting, burning or other harmful activities)

Indicators in adult behaviour:

  • Insist on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it.
  • Are overly interested in the sexual development of a child or teenager.
  • Insist on time alone with a child with no interruptions.
  • Spend most of their spare time with children and have little interest in spending time with people their own age.
  • Regularly offer to baby-sit children for free or take children on overnight outings alone.
  • Buy children expensive gifts or give them money for no apparent reason.
  • Frequently walk in on children/ teenagers in the bathroom.
  • Treat a particular child as a favourite, making them feel ‘special’ compared with others in the family.
  • Pick on a particular child.

What can I do for Child Safety?

We often see children begging on the road or being physically abused in the community or sometimes come across missing child or street child who seems unwell. We have simple but an important role to play in such situations. Always put child first (give priority over all other important work), do not ignore the situation.

Take following steps to help child in need:

If it is an Emergency:

If it is an emergency and you suspect a child is at serious risk, or a crime against a child has been committed then
Step-1: Immediately contact parents if child is not abused by parents and if child can give information of his/her parents,
Step-2: Contact any one of the following agencies to provide required support to parents and child: DCPU, SJPU, Childline, CPCs, Police or CWC. You can also take help from credible NGOs working on Child Rights in your area.
Step-3: Provide emergency support such as medical aid, clothing, food and transportation to safe places. Make sure that you handover this child to responsible adults from above mentioned list only. Step-4: Help authorities with whatever information and evidence you have as regards abuse of the child to make sure that the abuser is punished. If possible give written information.

Caution: You need not be complainant in the case if you do not want to. Do not hesitate to support because of the fear of time requirement for the legal procedures POCSO says in case of sexual offense it is mandatory reporting.

Step-5: Maintain privacy to ensure that the name of the child is not disclosed to media or public in any ways.

When it’s not an Emergency:

A lot of the time it may not be obvious that a child is at risk, you may need to rely on a hunch or feeling uncomfortable about a situation. Don’t wait until you are certain, always put a child first. Taking action to protect a child doesn’t always mean extreme measures.

There are lots of things you can do which may help to prevent abuse even occurring or stop it very early.

  1. Do something personally to help: It is not easy at any time to get involved, especially when your concerns are with family or friends. By lending a hand or a listening ear at an early stage you may prevent something more serious:
  • Learn to recognize the signs
  • Provide a listening ear
  • Offer help
  • Give helpful information
  • Explain that violence is not OK
  1. Look for community systemic support for the family: If you feel that you cannot personally help, you can contact Childline (1098) to talk over your concerns confidentially with a trained social worker. They will give you advice on what to do. There are also many other organisations (annexure1) that support children and families You can contact any of them.
  2. Contact CWC: If a child needs support and help in terms of rescue, rehabilitation, shelter, education, counseling, legal aid, protection, transfer to place of residence or safety; foster care then contact DCPU or CWC or Child Welfare officer at Police Station. When you are in authority position where child protection is at stake, it is your primary responsibility to provide support needed and to report authorities. In fact under Sec 21 Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act (POCSO), if you do not report sexual abuse of the child (which is known to you) then you can also be booked under the law.

To Prevent Child Abuse:

  • Create Safe places for children in community, neighbourhood and society: Safe places for children are those where children feel secure and protected. They are nurtured, looked after and cared for.
  • Create Structures and Systems where children can express their feelings and emotions freely without any inhibitions.
  • Create Structures and Systems to ensure safety and to ensure that children are supervised.
  • Educate children about safety measures. Provide information about the emergency contact numbers. • Create awareness: About child protection systems and networks. Keep this information handy.
  • Build network of concern individuals and groups to help children. Develop support systems for children.
    Build public opinion for child protection so that child protection will get priority in planning and budgeting.

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