Child abuse: you can help
Here’s what to do if you suspect a child might be being abused.
The abuse of our children is an ongoing and wide-spread problem in South Africa. Whether you are an educator or a parent, you can help halt the abuse. We all know by now that abusers are often those closest to the child: a trusted family member, teacher or group leader.

Learn how to identify abuse

There are four main types of abuse that can happen. The following are some of the signs and symptoms that a child may have been abused or is being abused:

Physical abuse
Injuries over a period of time or at various stages of healing (cuts, bruises, burn marks, abrasions, fractures) which cannot be explained.

The child does not grow and/or loses weight, is unwell and emaciated, is constantly vomiting and/or has constant diarrhoea or does not reach developmental milestones within normal age-range.

Sexual abuse 
Pain or unusual itching of genitals or anal area, sexually transmitted diseases, difficulty in sitting or walking, regular urinary infection or continual irritation and/or mouth sores (owing to forced oral sex).

Emotional abuse 
Bedwetting, soiling and continual complaints of headaches, nausea, and/or stomach pain for which there is no physical cause.

Other signs of abuse

Unusual knowledge or curiosity about sex, sexual acting out/masturbation, withdrawal, being secretive, poor hygiene or compulsive washing, poor peer relationships, poor school performance, sudden unexplained gifts, sleep disruptions, nightmares, bedwetting,  aggression, irritable moods, fear of undressing for sports for example, fearful of home life and thoughts of running away, clinging behaviour and a constant need for reassurance, tearfulness, regression (acting younger than their age) and suicide attempts.

Take action

If you think a child is being abused:

1.    Gather information about your suspicion without implicating or accusing any person. Do not point a finger publicly but rather approach the suspected victim and enquire if they would like to report a case of abuse.
2.    Document your information in a file (information from the child, information from other learners and/or parents, and reports from parents and educators, any other people who may assist).
3.    Treat this information as highly confidential (all information gathered must be placed in a separate file and stored in a locked cupboard. This information must not be discussed with other people).
4.    Report your suspicions to your local South African Police Station or a social worker. You can also report your suspicions to the school principal (unless the principal is the person suspected) or contact the Department of Education’s district office, which will then follow the correct procedures.

Long term action

Children who have been abused should be closely monitored and encouraged to seek counseling. This is very important.
  • Listen to the child and show that you understand and take seriously what the child is saying. Child and adolescent psychiatrists have found that children who are listened to and understood do much better than those who are not. The response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse.
  • Assure the child that they did the right thing in telling. A child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty about revealing the secret. The child may feel frightened if the abuser has threatened to harm the child or other family members as punishment for telling the secret.
  • Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the sexual abuse. Most children in attempting to make sense out of the abuse will believe that somehow they caused it or may even view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoings.
  • Become a good listener. Let the child talk about the experience without you judging them. Don’t talk too much but rather just encourage them to talk.
  • Life skills such as problem-solving abilities, optimistic outlook, confidence and assertiveness can all assist a child to cope.

What about the parents?

Parents may or may not believe that their child is being abused but may not act on dealing with the problem for various reasons:

  • Financial dependence on the abuser.
  • Fear of punishment or beatings by the abuser.
  • Having no other place to go to.
  • Custody and maintenance fears and problems.
They will need support and discretion from other people who become involved in an abuse situation.

This article is edited from one in a series provided by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Wits University. For further information contact Phillipa Tucker.

How would you deal with a child abuse situation? Has your child ever suffered abuse?

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