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Human Rights

Child Abuse

Anika Hossain

Sharmin Akhtari was born under the open sky at the Kamlapur railway station. Her father worked at a hotel and her mother collected waste paper at the station and nearby areas. By the age of 5, Sharmin began begging on the streets and collecting waste like her mother. Her parents were separated by then and she was living with her father and her new stepmother. Her stepmother was an abusive woman who often beat Sharmin cruelly. Unable to bear the torture inflicted on his daughter, her father sent her to live with her mother and her stepfather. However as luck would have it, Sharmin's situation did not change for the better as her father had hoped. Initially, her stepfather would scold her and beat her regularly but with time his abuse took a different and even more terrifying form. At the age of nine, he raped Sharmin brutally and threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Confused and frightened by what had happened to her, Sharmin remained silent and from then on, he began to molest her daily. This continued for some time until her mother witnessed the abuse and reacted by asking Sharmin to leave her house. She said nothing of the matter to her husband, afraid that it would break up her marriage.

Out once again on the streets, Sharmin began to make her living by working at a tea stall and begging on the streets near the railway station. Due to her unhygienic living conditions and lack of proper food, Sharmin contracted a disease, which rendered her right arm inactive. Her weakness left her vulnerable to predators on the streets and one night she was gangraped by three men at the station. She was attacked several times after this incident and had nobody to turn to for protection. When she asked her mother for help, she was told the attacks were a result of her own foolishness and carelessness.

Sharmin lived under these horrific conditions for three more years before she met some representatives from Action Aid Bangladesh who were conducting a survey on street children at the station. After several interviews with her, they managed to gain her trust and offered her shelter at a group home for adolescent women (Happy Home), which she gladly accepted. Staff at the home report that Sharmin needs extensive psychological counselling to overcome her terrible past before she can start living on her own again.

According to a survey conducted by The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) in collaboration with Appropriate Resources for Improving Street Children's Environment (ARISE) Project of Dept of Social Service (Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, 2004) there are approximately 679,728 street children like Sharmin living in Bangladesh. Out of them, 2,49,200 live in Dhaka and more than 80 per cent of these children are between 7 to 18 years of age, work more than eight hours a day and live in inhuman conditions, exposed to physical, sexual and emotional abuse every day. While their human rights are being violated, the authorities turn a blind eye to their needs. NGO's such as Action Aid Bangladesh (AAB), UNICEF, Assistance for Slum Dwellers (ASD), Save the Children and many others have programmes, which are designed to help street children, but the percentage of children who receive assistance is insignificant compared to the thousands who still remain exposed to violence and abuse.

Thousands of street children are exposed to violence and neglect.

The children who are fortunate enough to receive services from these NGO's need extensive psychological care to recover from the various traumatic experiences they have encountered. According to the staff working at various shelters for adolescent girls managed by ASD and funded by AAB, most of these children tend to be withdrawn and reluctant to share their experiences. Some children show signs of distress such as repeated nightmares and bed-wetting, lack of attention and interest in daily activities. The staff mentioned that they do their best to be supportive and provide a safe and loving environment for the children but have expressed an interest in being trained in basic counselling skills in order to recognise symptoms of psychological trauma which may arise due to abuse and be able to provide proper assistance or refer the children to psychologists/psychiatrists if needed.

In order to understand whether a child has been abused, caregivers must be able to recognise the different symptoms of abuse. Psychiatrist Dr Kamaluddin Ahmed says, "a child can be facing different types of abuse, these include physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect." According to Dr Kamaluddin, if a child is being physically abused, there will be signs of injuries such as burns, bleeding and bruises. The child may also be withdrawn, frightened and display aggressive behaviour. Long term affects of physical abuse maybe anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, developmental delays, difficulty with peer relationships, deliberate self-injurious and suicidal behaviour. In case of emotional and sexual abuse, the signs may be more subtle. Sexually abused children feel shame, fear and guilt and this may cause them to be withdrawn and alert and display nervous behaviour. Children suffering from neglect are usually in poor health, suffer from malnutrition and are often irritable and withdrawn. They develop diseases such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which are eating disorders and pica, which involves eating/drinking inedible objects/ liquids. Dr Kamaluddin states that long-term consequences of chronic abuse include the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Dissociative Disorder, Personality Disorders and Substance Abuse (drugs and alcohol). Since street children do not have anyone who will recognise these symptoms, it is upto the caregivers at shelters, NGO workers and social workers to observe them carefully and try to give them the treatment they need for recovery.

Children are afraid to talk about their abuse.

Dr Kamaluddin mentions that the treatment for abused children must have a multi disciplinary approach. The child's physical (including personal hygiene) as well as mental health must be taken care of. An abused child requires plenty of reassurance. Where family members are available, a dialogue with them is extremely important. Supportive psychotherapy is used to treat most victims of abuse. In most cases of child abuse, the abuser is someone who is a part of the child's family or someone close to the child. In such cases it is important to make the child feel safe and create an environment of trust , love and support. In some severe cases a child needs to be hospitalised and social services needs to be involved to remove the child from their unsafe surroundings. Unfortunately such services and resources are not easily available in Bangladesh, specially not to underprivileged, street children.

Street children may be more vulnerable, but they are not by any means the only ones who are victims of child abuse. Children from any background, be it the poor, middle class or the elite of the society can be victims of abuse. Most cases of abuse are either camouflaged as disciplinary actions, or covered up because of the stigma surrounding this issue. According to Dr Kamaluddin, children do not talk of their own abuse, mostly because they are ashamed, confused or trying to protect their loved ones. Most of his clients who are abuse victims come to him for other symptoms and it is upto him to find out if the child is being victimized. It is extremely important for parents/guardians/caretakers and teachers to keep a close eye on their children and note any unusual, uncharacteristic behaviours and get help immediately.

Some symptoms to keep an eye out for include (www.helpguide.org):

Physical abuse:
* Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
* The child is always watchful and alert
* Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
* The child does not like physical contact, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
* Wears inappropriate clothing to hide injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts in summer.

* The child's clothes are ill-fitted, dirty, or inappropriate for the weather.
* Poor hygiene (unbathed, unwashed hair, body odour).
* Has untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
* Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and surroundings.
* Is often late or missing from school.

Emotional and Sexual Abuse:
* Has trouble walking or sitting.
* Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or seductive behaviour.
* Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person without apparent reason
* Doesn't want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
* An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
* Runs away from home

If recognised at an early stage it is possible to prevent further abuse and give both the child and sometimes even the abuser the treatment they need.



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