Thursday, December 24, 2015

The scars of violence against children that can last a lifetime

By Sam Waller

Violence negatively affects the growth and long-term development of children. The child in this photograph is an actor.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Luis Barreto

Seventeen-year-old Neary* experiences social anxiety, depression, panic attacks and night terrors. She constantly wants to stay close to an adult that she trusts. In the past, severe post-traumatic stress has caused her to have panic attacks so severe that she went unconscious. This affected her education, her physical and mental health, and her ability to socialize normally.

Neary’s mother died when she was a young child. This was the start of a childhood of unimaginable pain, the scars of which may never fade away.

After she lost her mother, Neary was looked after by her aunt, Kunthea*, and her extended family. They lived in a village on the outskirts of Battambang city, in the north west of Cambodia.

At the age of 9, Neary was viciously raped and beaten by an older male relative on several occasions. The violence was so severe that Neary almost died.

Neary’s family was strongly divided. Kunthea wanted to inform the authorities about the perpetrator and the terrible pain he had inflicted upon Neary, but other family members tried to protect him. They pressurized Kunthea not to tell anyone about the abuse.

Kunthea was determined that the perpetrator should be brought to justice. Despite the intimidation she faced, she approached LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights organization, for help.

LICADHO referred the social work aspect of the case to Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), a local non-governmental organization (NGO) with social workers experienced in cases involving violence against children. CCT staff conducted a visit to Neary’s community, where they spoke to the commune leader and neighbours to gather more information about the case.

Next was the extremely difficult task of visiting Neary’s family. The men in the family were very defensive during the visit, and Neary was clearly extremely traumatized. The first priority of any social worker is to secure the safety of the child. After much negotiation, Neary’s family agreed that she should be taken into CCT’s care. 

Neary (not pictured) was taken into the care of UNICEF’s partner Cambodian Children’s Trust, and eventually placed with a nurturing foster family.
© The Fox Darkroom/CCT

Neary’s abuser was successfully prosecuted and jailed for seven years. CCT was able to ensure that Neary received stable care by placing her with a nurturing foster family. It was not possible to support Neary to reintegrate back into her family, as she was ostracized after the jailing of her abuser, so she has been cared for by the same foster mother ever since.

Neary has formed close bonds with her foster brothers and sisters. They live together in a traditional Cambodian family home, and Neary attends public school. She receives ongoing counselling, medical support and supplementary education from CCT.

Neary (not pictured) studies at public school and receives supplementary education from UNICEF’s partner Cambodian Children’s Trust.
© The Fox Darkroom/CCT

Experiencing violence during childhood affects the growth and long-term development of children like Neary, preventing them from reaching their full potential. As well as being a tragedy for every child affected, violence against children is also a huge drain on the development of Cambodia. A groundbreaking new study released earlier this month shows that Cambodia lost at least US$168 million in 2013 as a result of some of the negative health consequences caused by violence against children. To provide some context, that sum is equivalent to the annual salary for over 100,000 primary school teachers, or 1.1% of Cambodia’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).

To protect Cambodian children from violence, UNICEF works in partnership with the Cambodian Government and Friends-International to mobilize a national child protection system. UNICEF provides technical expertise, knowledge and financial support to this network, which is called the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children, or 3PC. There are a total of 12 NGOs – including CCT – and a wider network of 41 local civil society organizations within 3PC. All members of 3PC work closely together to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Cambodia are better protected from violence, abuse and exploitation.

Children studying at CCT's education centre in Battambang

Now aged 17, Neary has made good progress and has come a long way. She plays football and enjoys drawing. She has a shy smile and a quiet laugh. Most of all she loves caring for little children. She still often feels stressed when out in public and speaks in a quiet voice to avoid drawing attention to herself. She struggles to make healthy social relationships due to anxiety and extreme shyness.

Neary is still a long way from becoming independent – she dresses like a child, plays with toys and stays close to her foster mother. But crucially she has the love and support of her foster family and the ongoing help of CCT. She will continue to receive this support for as long as she needs.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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