Children become victims of abuse before the age of 10
“He was hanging out in a group nearby. My ball hit him and he came up to me and slapped me. Earlier, another man slapped me when my ball accidentally hit him,” said Abdul Subahan, an eleven-year-old boy, talking about these incidents with this correspondent on 5 June near Sowarighat area in the capital. Abdul Subahan is a fourth-grade student at Debidas Government Primary School.
Abdul Subahan recounted an incident where he was assaulted by a TikTok content creator for unintentionally appearing in their video at Rahmatganj football ground. He spoke about being frequently targeted by several older individuals while playing at the Rahmatganj ground.
Ten-year-old Lamia spoke about how she has been physically abused multiple times while performing household chores as her mother cooks for the labourers working at Sawarighat.
During the investigation, the correspondent encountered a seven-year-old child whose parents wished to keep their identity anonymous. The child displayed signs of being inattentive and rebellious. After seeking help from a psychiatrist, it was discovered that the driver who took the child to school had been inappropriately touching the child’s genitals. The parents were shocked upon learning this as the child had never confided in them.
These distressing experiences were documented in a report titled ‘Violence Against Children and Its Associated Factors in Urban Areas of Dhaka, Bangladesh,’ conducted by Bangladesh University of Health Sciences (BUHS). The study revealed that 88 per cent of children had experienced physical abuse or sexual harassment at least once, with 55 per cent endured this repeatedly.
Children are primarily subjected to abuse by individuals frequenting playgrounds, parents, teachers in schools, and their peer groups. Of all the victims, over 49 per cent of children suffered physical abuse, 46 per cent experienced mental torture, and the remaining 5 per cent were victims of sexual abuse.
The BUHS report made its place among the top three presentation in the ‘National Conference, 2023’ of International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr’b). The study was conducted in 2019, in two wards of Dhaka North City Corporation. Around 401 children aged 10 to 16 participated. Most were schoolchildren, living with their families. Most of their fathers work outside home and mothers were homemakers. Most of the children experienced abuse before the age of 10.
Abuse: Physical, Mental, Sexual
According to the BUHS report which examined the experiences of children in the study, approximately 65 per cent faced physical abuse, 32 per cent experienced mental abuse, and around 3 per cent reported incidents of sexual abuse. Among them, approximately 58 per cent of children encountered physical abuse and 42 per cent experienced mental abuse within their own families, while 56 per cent faced physical abuse and 42 per cent experienced mental abuse within educational institutions. Less than 1 per cent of children disclosed incidents of sexual abuse, either at home or at school.
Family members were identified as the primary perpetrators of abuse, accounting for 39 per cent of cases, followed by teachers (17 per cent), strangers (15 per cent), friends (13 per cent), and neighbours (5 per cent). Additionally, classmates, relatives, and employers were also identified as sources of abuse. Peer abuse accounted for approximately 55 per cent of cases of physical abuse, while service providers were responsible for approximately 39 per cent of physical abuse incidents.
Professor Begum Rowshan Ara, the head of the Department of Reproductive and Child Health at BUHS, who also led the research team, stated that the purpose of the study was to raise awareness and prevent child abuse. The study revealed that torture hampers a child’s physical and mental development, and those who grow up subjected to abuse are at higher risk of becoming abusers themselves in the future.
Professor Begum Rowshan Ara further explained that while the research gathered precise information on physical and mental abuse, obtaining information on sexual abuse proved more challenging. Many children hesitated to speak openly about such incidents in front of others. Those who did disclose incidents of sexual abuse reported being assaulted by strangers on the roads.
First experience of torture
Exam results are a major cause of panic among teenage students. The daughter of a colleague of this correspondent is a student of a reputed educational institution. The girl once thanked her and said, “Many mothers return home to beat their children when the test results are out. Ma, thank you for not being hard on me.”
A parent said that he saw many children at school scared after getting the exam results. Parents beat children in front of everyone if they get low marks.
A few of the parents said, children do not study if not hit sometimes. They are against completely withholding disciplining the children.
According to BUHS research, most children experience their first abuse before the age of 10. The first experience of abuse in the family is the most frequent, about 46 per cent. Before the age of 10, about 31 per cent of children were abused by their friends. In addition, 30 per cent of children experience first abuse in educational institutions, about 24 per cent in playgrounds, and 9 per cent by service providers.
Parents' obsession with children's studies and exam marks sometimes goes beyond measure. A parent posted on the Facebook group of a reputed school in the capital blaming the teachers for cutting two marks in science of her fifth grade daughter.
Professor Begum Rowshan Ara said that parents discipline their children to improve their studies. They also compare their children with other children. It is counterproductive. Children suffer from inferiority complex. Many children are also seen committing suicide due to poor test results.
Playgrounds not child friendly
According to the BUHS report, the rate of physical abuse by strangers and friends on the playground is 65 per cent.
Subahan of Sowarighat said, playing with friends often leads to pushing, fighting and quarrels. That is not so bad. But it hurts him a lot when adults beat him for small reasons. He cries too. But he is glad that there is a playground in the area.
Child rights activists have highlighted the inadequate availability of playgrounds for children. Moreover, the few existing playgrounds are often not child-friendly. Some fields are occupied by private clubs, while others are closed off in the name of development projects or fairs. Recently, construction work on a police station building in the Tentultala playground of Kalabagan was halted due to public protests. Unfortunately, during that period, children were deprived of the opportunity to play in the ground for over a month.
A seventh grade student of Sukrabad High School Fahim in the capital, said the same thing as Subahan. Both their fathers are drivers. On 13 June, it was seen that the installation of water pump was going on in the Tentultala field of Kalabagan. There was mud all over the field. Shaheen and Fahim were there. They said, they used to play regularly in this field. Since the construction work has been going on for a month, it is not possible to play there anymore. Shaheen also said that friends often fight with each other, yet he loves to play.
Silence on sexual abuse
A father took his 22-year-old daughter who was suffering chronic headache to an acclaimed psychiatrist. After several sessions, the psychiatrist could not figure out the cause of the headaches. The girl later said that she was a victim of sexual abuse by her father since childhood. Even when she told her mother in her childhood, she did not believe it.
The physician, feeling perplexed by the situation, shared with an organization dedicated to working with children that he himself was taken aback by the father's apparent care and concern in seeking help for his daughter.
A mother came to the counselling of Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization for child rights, with mental problems of a seven-year-old child. The child also accused the father of sexual abuse to the mother and said that she did not get any remedy.
According to the Child Helpline 1098 run by the Department of Social Services, there were 8,021 calls for help regarding child abuse in 2022. In 2020, the numbers of calls received 5275 and 6388 in 2021. The number of tortures is increasing gradually.
According to Section 70 of the Children Act 2013, if a person injures, molests, neglects, abandons, leaves in a vulnerable state, uses or indecently exposes a child in his custody, charge or care and thereby causes unnecessary suffering to the child or health and if there is any damage and mental disorder, then the person will be deemed to have committed a crime. For this crime, there is a provision of imprisonment for a maximum of 5 years or a fine of not more than Tk 100,000 or both.
The focal point of the Child Sensitive Social Protection in Bangladesh (CSPB) project managed by the Department of Social Services and UNICEF for the protection of poor children, Imran Khan, said that they have been deliberating on increasing the number of social workers. Acknowledging that government action is less than necessary, he said, it would be better if free telephone booths were set up for children in educational institutions, playgrounds or on roads to open avenues for reporting if they are subjected to any offence.
It is important to break the silence
Roksana Sultana, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, emphasised the significance of breaking the silence surrounding child abuse. She explained that any form of abuse acts as a hindrance to a child's cognitive development. When children are raised in an environment of physical punishment and verbal reprimands, they become reluctant to disclose any incidents out of fear. This fear-driven silence prevents them from seeking help and finding a solution, thereby increasing the vulnerability to child sexual abuse. It is essential to address this silence and bring attention to the issue to prevent the horrifying instances of sexual abuse, both within domestic settings and outside. It is important to note that sexual abuse encompasses more than just rape, as any inappropriate physical contact falls under the category of sexual abuse.
Roksana Sultana further emphasized the significance of raising awareness to prevent child abuse within families. She stated that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the safety of playgrounds for children. Encouraging children to engage in outdoor activities and play is crucial. Sports and physical activities play a vital role in empowering and promoting the development of children.
*This article, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition in Bangla, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat