A three-year-old child is caned multiple times, over several weeks. His small body is covered in bruises – his arms and legs, even his chest is not spared. His father routinely punishes him for “misconduct”, such as not informing him when his diaper is full.
Trapped with an abusive parent for weeks at a stretch during a lockdown, the child’s cries are inaudible to the outside world.
It is only when the boy’s grandmother notices the bruises – some 10cm in length – that she reports the abuse to the police and the child is treated in hospital.
That there should be no excuse for abusing children and that their safety is a basic human right are maxims we espouse in civil society.
Yet, the fundamental right to live without fear is being denied to millions of innocent children around the world.
Homes have become predatory zones of physical and sexual assault, exposing children to unrelenting forms of brutality, prompting United Nations under-secretary-general Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to refer to the deleterious effects of domestic violence on minors during Covid-19 lockdowns as a “shadow pandemic”.
Surge in family violence
Maltreatment is indifferent to borders and does not discriminate between class or caste. Cases of domestic abuse rose unabated in rich and poor countries alike. France saw a 30 per cent jump in family violence within the first two weeks of its shutdown and Singapore reported a 22 per cent surge in the first month of its circuit breaker in April.
The most common form of violence against children is corporal punishment and the most vulnerable are those with disabilities and the very young.
It is the silence surrounding abuse that is deafening. Even during normal times, it lurks behind closed doors, with victims afraid to call out perpetrators for fear of reprisal and shame.
The pandemic has rendered children alone and invisible. The irony is that they need not go far to experience suffering. Studies have repeatedly shown offenders to be those whom children trust implicitly – their caregivers – in their own homes.
In fact, close to 300 million children – nearly three out of four worldwide – between the ages of two and four experience violent discipline by their caregivers on a regular basis.
At school, teachers can catch telltale signs of depression, notice injuries or even observe the silent dread in their eyes. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) warns that as classrooms for half the world’s schoolchildren remain closed, they are at an increased risk.
A grim reality
Reports from South and South-east Asia reveal a grim reality. The region has seen a devastating rise in violence against women and children this year, intensifying the challenges for governments already grappling with Covid-19.
In the Philippines, which Unicef has found to be one of the top countries producing child pornographic materials globally, the number of online sex abuse instances against children more than trebled.
In Thailand, domestic violence cases nearly doubled during its lockdown.
In India, the government-led Childline India Helpline received over 92,000 SOS calls in just 11 days of the country’s shutdown, and the demand for violent content involving minors, including child pornography, jumped over 200 per cent.
In Indonesia, even prior to the pandemic, 60 per cent of children between the ages of 13 and 17 reported one form of violence during their lifetime.
The burden of job loss and financial pressures on families have a harrowing impact on minors – millions are seeing their childhood cut short by marriage, as well as exploitative labour and other atrocities.
The UN Population Fund predicts a staggering 13 million child marriages globally over the next 10 years, due to impact from the pandemic. These chilling statistics should act as a clarion call for action before more children fall through the cracks.
Altering age-old mindsets and rooting out practices of patriarchy that permeate Asian societies and render women and children powerless are what make change arduous to implement and harness.
The complexities of navigating a cultural terrain that normalises gender bias and abusive behaviour – such as hitting at home or bullying in school – require a sensitive approach and a blueprint that is unique to each society.
The stigma of denial and shame runs deep in Asian countries, where domestic conflict is regarded as an internal, private matter and is rarely called out. Often, punishment is not considered abuse but seen as a parent’s prerogative or duty, and this is a view that has long historical roots. Even when perpetrators are reported by social workers, police and the law often fail to take action.
There are glimmers of hope. Countries in South-east Asia are finally beginning to acknowledge family violence as a social and public health crisis.
It is heartening to see Singapore’s urgent and vigorous efforts to raise public awareness of this issue. In February, following an alarming spike in cases, the Republic spearheaded an inter-agency task force to de-escalate domestic violence and reach out to victims before it is too late. Made up of government and community members, the task force represents a “whole-of-society” approach to combat this problem.
The idea behind this initiative is that no one should be fearful of being at home. Through check-ins via phone, video calls or home visits with safe distancing measures observed, victims will be supported, from the initial report to the case’s conclusion in the criminal justice system.
In its investigations, the Ministry of Social and Family Development found that parents or step-parents made up a majority of those who beat their children. Getting people to break the silence is the biggest challenge.
The task force is also planning a one-stop dedicated national hotline. Similar efforts are under way at the grassroots level across several Asean countries – including Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
What about the rights convention?
Why is it that 30 years after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the world’s most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history – one billion, or half the world’s children, still suffer injuries, disabilities and death?
The UN convention was visionary, the first time that global leaders collectively made a commitment to every child and declared any violence against them as unacceptable. Amid much hope and promise, they adopted a historic legal framework which formally recognised that childhood is separate from adulthood and lasts until age 18.
The striking failure by many countries to implement existing laws is a global ignominy. A new, pioneering global report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef found that while nearly 88 per cent of all countries have laws in place to safeguard minors, less than half strongly enforce them.
WHO warns of a dramatic impact of Covid-19 on children, unless countries take immediate steps towards their well-being. The report reiterates what leaders said 30 years ago – that children are the victims and never to blame.
It is only when children are nurtured and their safety prioritised that we can break the catastrophic cycle of systemic violence and embrace the multi-generational reward of a healthier, happier world.
Today, globally, nearly one billion caregivers believe hitting children is an acceptable disciplinary practice. The definition of physical punishment refers to shaking, hitting or slapping with a bare hand or with a hard object, on the face, head, ears or elsewhere on the body, beating hard and repeatedly.
However, there is little proof that inflicting physical pain on children makes them more responsible citizens and contributes to their developmental health.
On the contrary, studies consistently point to a strong link between physical abuse and higher levels of aggression.
Children who are beaten are more likely to do the same as adults and are at a higher risk of physical and mental health problems – including depression, alcohol and drug abuse.
Scientists tell us exposure to traumatic experiences produces toxic stress, which can alter the structure and functioning of the brain during formative early years. Caregivers need to be educated to find positive, non-violent methods of disciplining their children.
We need to put pressure on government, business and community leaders to deliver on their pledge to make a better world for our children.
But governments can only do so much. Ultimately, it is the shared responsibility of each and every adult to ensure that childhood is not taken from the young. We owe our successive generations an environment where their imagination and curiosity can flower, so that they can face the future with courage and compassion. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “If we are to create peace in our world, we must begin with our children.”
Ashwini Devare is the author of a memoir, Lost At 15, Found At 50, which won the Readers’ Favourite English Book award in the Singapore Literature Prize 2020. She is a former broadcast journalist who worked for BBC’s Asia Business Report and CNBC.