Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Religious leader in Cambodia campaigns to end violence against children

By Anne-Sophie Galli

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli
“I deeply regret what I did to my children,” says Pastor Sreng Sophal seen here praying in his church.

KANDAL, Cambodia, 4 November 2014 – As a former military officer, there was a time when Sreng Sophal had it all: money, power and a group of soldiers who reported to him. At home, if his own children refused to follow his commands, he would beat them. In Sreng Sophal’s world violence was standard. “Beating my children was normal to me – like for most people here”, he said. “I was hit by my dad and he was hit by his parents and teachers.”

Ten years ago, he changed his life. After a friend introduced him to Christianity, Sreng Sophal became a pastor and built his own church. Now he also teaches his fellow believers about good parenting to encourage them to stop using violence against their children. “I want others not to repeat my mistakes,” says 51 year old Sophal, “I deeply regret what I did to my children.”

Sreng Sophal’s promotion of non-violence against children followed his attendance at a workshop for religious leaders of Cambodia’s three major religions, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity in November 2013.

Day of Prayer and Action for Children

The training was organised by UNICEF, Save the Children and Investing in Children and their Societies (ICS) in collaboration with the Cambodian Ministry of Cult and Religion and with funding from the German International Cooperation Agency (GIZ). The event was one of the activities in Cambodia for the Day of Prayer and Action for Children, a global initiative launched in 2008 to mobilize faith-based organizations and groups to work together for the wellbeing of children around the world.

At the workshop over 100 heads of monks, imams and pastors learned about the negative impacts of physical, emotional and sexual violence on a child’s development, about positive parenting strategies and ways to discipline children without using violence.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Daney Nov
6 out of 10 Cambodian children experience violence in a place where they feel safe. (Image posed by models).
In Cambodia, acceptance of violence has become a social norm, and smacking, hitting and shouting at a child are considered appropriate ways to discipline offspring. The hierarchical nature of traditional Cambodian society where older people are considered to have authority over younger ones also deters people from speaking out against violence. A 2013 survey on violence against children in Cambodia conducted by UNICEF and the Royal Government of Cambodia found that at least 6 out of 10 Cambodian children experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence by a parent, an adult relative or a community member in places where they should feel safe. Pastor Sreng Sophal uses a Khmer proverb to describe the prevailing attitude of many parents and teachers towards violence against children: “Eyes must not get blind, skin not scratched and bones not broken.”

The workshop was designed for religious leaders because as trusted members of their communities, they can play a powerful role in changing social norms and preventing violence by sharing information about the impact of violence on children.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli
Children play in Sreng Sophal’s village where hitting children was the norm.

Impact of violence on child development

At the workshop, Pastor Sreng Sophal learned that violence against children damages their development. Those who experience it are more likely to have problems interacting with others, to suffer from low self-esteem and they are less motivated to study. It may lead to physical injuries, mental health problems and puts them at a greater risk of abusing drugs or alcohol. When perpetrated by people whom children love and who are responsible for them, it establishes a link between love and violence. The message it sends to the child is that using violence is acceptable; that it is tolerable for a stronger person to use force to coerce a weaker one.

Using passages from Buddhist principles, the Qur'an and the Bible, the workshop reinforced two key messages: that children copy the behaviour of their parents; and that parenting with love is better than with violence. Pastor Sreng Sophal now incorporates these messages during his Sunday services and home visits, and uses his own experiences as examples.

Parents visited by Sreng Sophal were surprised to discover that physical and verbal abuse against children could have a negative impact on their development. “God wants me to be a better, loving mum”, says 27 year old Theavy*, a farmer, who used to smack her daughter when she did not wash her clothes. “Now I tell her ‘see, I’m busy earning money that you can go to school. Please help me.’ It works better. She understands me.”

Her husband, 28 year old Vanna*, a fisherman, adds: “I used to think that children [would] only respect me if I beat them. But violence never really worked anyway. My children still didn’t always do what I wanted and they were afraid of me.” Their neighbour, 54 year old Sok*, a fellow fisherman agrees and says: “I asked Pastor Sreng Sophal how I can make my children love me. He recommended love, patience and no violence.” Sok is determined to stop beating his children and he says he is already hitting them less often. He says he feels that his relationship to his children has become closer and although the progress is slow, it is steady.

Pastor Sreng Sophal is pleased to see this behaviour change. “Being a loving dad and helping other families and children makes me happier than ever before,” he says. “In the future, I hope to end poverty here because poverty leads to stress and stress to violence.”

© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Anne-Sophie Galli
Pastor Sreng Sophal regularly visits houses of his followers to convince them to stop hitting their children and reminds them, “God doesn’t want you to hit your children.”

* Names changed to protect identities.

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