As someone who has experienced abuse growing up that has often been trivialised in conversations about child abuse and maltreatment, through this piece I want to emphasise that there is a need to centre the voices of victims and survivors. That such centring should be the focus in any discussion about children experiencing abuse and neglect seems to be a given, until you realise how the centring of the abusers is a widespread and predominant norm.
Before I move on to talking about the trivialisation of this abuse, it is important to establish what I mean when I use the word ‘abuse’. I will be considering the definition of abuse shared by the World Health Organisation which considers child abuse or maltreatment as encapsulating “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.’’ What this definition helps establish is that abuse exists on a spectrum. It does not just include physically hitting the child to such an extent that they bleed or fracture their bones. It does not just refer to acts that result in the child being taken for a medical emergency. The act of abuse and the consequences of abuse are wide-ranging, from spanking to pinching, pushing, and pulling, and even extending to verbal abuse that poses “actual or potential harm” to the child.
How, you’d wonder, can any of the abuse that children often experience routinely be trivialised? Who would do such a thing? It sounds counterintuitive that when people generally tend to believe that abuse is wrong and child rights are human rights, they would belittle the experiences of those abused. That is, however, how it generally plays out in any discussions on children experiencing ill-treatment. Why and how does it happen and what are the consequences of this gaslighting of the victims and survivors?
If you have had an interaction with parents, you might have heard of the challenges they face in raising their children. It is not easy at all. And for women in Pakistan, it comes with the additional challenges of them being forced to be the sole caretakers of the children. Men have traditionally been expected to be the breadwinners and to be responsible for providing monetarily to the family. This has often been used as an excuse for them to not engage in house work and to not be involved in the day to day realities of their children’s lives, to the extent that many men in Pakistan would proudly proclaim to have never changed the diapers of any of their kids, to casually forget what grade their child is in at school, to sleep through the night, when a mother is forced to stay up to cater to a crying baby and then continue with the same the next morning. There are also mothers who are employed, but despite the changing nature of employment patterns, and the distribution of household finances where women are equal or more of contributors to the family’s monetary needs, they are still predominantly the ones taking care of the children’s daily needs. This unequal distribution of care work itself puts the kind of burden on women that is not easy to bear from the get go.
There are other constraints on parenting than such unequal care work distribution as well. There is little guidance available to people to even consider when and whether or not they are even ready to become parents. Having children is just something that is expected to be the natural outcome of a marriage. It matters little if someone has the disposition or the interest in raising more humans. There is little engagement on what parenting patterns are beneficial and which ones are harmful for children. Generational trauma often goes unaddressed with the same abusive patterns being adopted by parents who were abused as children. It does not help that mental health issues such as post-partum disorder, depression, and anxiety, among others, are not even considered a serious concern. Many cannot financially afford to seek therapy or do not have the resource of time for it.
Given all these factors that could lead to the maltreatment of children, it is no surprise that any discussion on child abuse shifts into a moment of sympathy for the parents. When parents describe how difficult parenting is, sometimes they would share that their children do not listen and so every now and then, they have to be given a slap across the face, or the occasional spanking on the butt cheek, or the pinching on the arm, or to be disciplined by being locked in the washroom, or to be yelled at with threats of violent or fearful consequences. The list goes on, but these instances are presented as inevitable victimless moments that are supposed to convey to the interlocutor how miserable and difficult a position the parents are in.
These divulgences from the parents are enveloped in a projection of their own selves as the victims, people who have been put in these precarious positions by their children and the society, where they have no recourse but to hit the children or to abuse them in other ways in order to deal with situations that seem impossible to deal with. In such sharing is a comfort, a knowledge that this abuse will not even be considered abuse by the larger society, because everyone in similar positions is expected to have resorted to it at some point. It does not come across as abuse because look, are the parents, especially the mother not the actual abused since often times women have been plunged into these situations? Aren’t the parents who lack the awareness to know that this is wrong and have more worries to deal with in life victims too? And so is diluted a conversation where there is a victim of abuse at the hands of these parents to a barrage of sympathy for the parents for having to deal with these beings that are crying day and night making their lives a pain; these irrational creatures that do not understand simple logic and continue to pester; asking for it.
Sounds familiar? In no other context of abuse will people be expected to give as much space for elevating the justifications of the abuser as they will be in contexts where parents are the ones abusing. Part of this luxury afforded to parents in the context of abuse is the trivialisation of the abuse itself. It’s just a slap once in a while. No big deal. Everybody snaps. They’re only human. You’d know if you were a parent. They are not bad people. There just is a limit to what one can tolerate. And everyone has a breaking point. They just broke down at some point. We have to sympathise with them.
How will you address the harm if you do not understand the reasons behind it? Aren’t we supposed to understand the context? Yes, the context needs to be understood but in a situation of abuse, even if the abuser themselves have experienced violence and disempowerment, and are marginalised in structures of power because of their gender, class, race, ethnicity and other factors, they are the ones in positions of power over the child. The need for justice and accountability in this situation requires us to centre the child who does not have a voice in it and cannot counter the abuse. There is a need to centre the trauma of the child and to ask what the child must have gone through in this instance of abuse that was shared as an example of how the parents hit them in a moment of frustration.
Normalise empathising with the child in instances of child abuse instead of elevating the justifications of the parents for such harm, and may be stigmatise this abuse a little. It may look trivial to some, but it can scar children for life, and potentially ensures that this cycle of abuse continues.