Around the world, thousands of unfortunate children are exposed to violence at home. This early exposure paves the way for physical, mental and emotional afflictions which can last well into adulthood
When we hear the term ‘domestic violence’, we instinctively picture a hapless woman lamenting her relationship with an abusive partner. In the blame game, little consideration is given to children (if any) who are witnessing their mother’s abuse. The devastating effects of an abusive intimate-partner relationship on women are well-documented but far less is known about how their children react to it.
First and foremost, it is important for us to understand what constitutes as domestic violence. In the UK, the term is legally defined as “Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.” This implies that domestic abuse doesn’t pertain solely to married couples but other immediate family members as well. In many cases, children are victimised along with their mothers which makes them even more vulnerable to the psychological and physical trauma associated with domestic abuse.
According to the study ‘Violence Against Children’, conducted by the United Nations in 2006, about 6.1 million Pakistani children are exposed to domestic violence every year. Unfortunately, the statistic might be understated due to unreported cases. According to the report, fear and suppressed anger are two of the leading emotions exhibited by children who grow up with troubled parents. They often retreat into their thoughts and become quiet, perform badly at school and grow slower than other children. And what’s more, many troubled parents are unable to establish a nurturing relationship with their children, causing the latter to feel neglected and uncared-for.
The case of 27-year-old Jehanzeb Zaheer* is somewhat similar, watching his father beat his mother led to strained relations between the father and the son. “Seeing my mother there, being hit right before my eyes brought on a lot of rage in me,” shares Jehanzeb. “I was too young and weak to have done anything back then but my relationship with my father came to a halt the very first time I saw it happen.” Now, 12 years after the first episode, Jehanzeb makes sure not to leave his mother alone at home and hasn’t spoken to his father since, despite living under the same roof.
Fortunately, for Jehanzeb his father couldn’t corrupt his upbringing. Although many children exposed to abuse inevitably accept it as being right, this is perhaps the most disastrous consequence of domestic violence in that these children (generally boys) believe violence will help them dominate others. Domestic violence lead to a cyclic pattern wherein children pick up the foul habits from their abusive parent and grow up to be perpetrators themselves, emulating whatever they have witnessed. Such has been the experience of 25-year-old Tariq Shah, who attributes his recent divorce to his own harsh nature. “I have seen my father ill-treat my mother throughout my childhood,” admits Tariq. “The frequency of his assaults made it seem almost normal, so much so that I began exerting force to get what I wanted even as a child.” However, despite going through a rough patch and even losing custody of his child, Tariq still believes that his ex-wife’s actions warranted violence.
“But not all children grow up to be abusers,” says Dr Nargis Asad, a psychologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi. “Some children do get inspired by others around them, such as teachers who show them care. Despite having a destructive childhood, they become better, happier individuals.” Dr Nargis also highlights an interesting fact about the cycle of abuse in which the more mature a child is emotionally, the greater will be the impact of witnessing abuse on their upbringing and personality.
Interestingly, while boys incorporate aggression to influence their partners, girls who are raised amidst to familial violence internalise their suffering and consider verbal threats and mild insults normal. Due to social pressures, many victims avoid divorce and continue to overlook their partners’ oppressive behaviour as this is what they have watched their mothers do.
Regardless, the fact remains that domestic violence is wrong and must be eradicated. In Pakistan, the lack of NGOs, social institutions and sound legislation make it even harder for affected children to get help. Homes plagued with such problems are governed by fear, instability and a sense of oppression instead of love, comfort and nurturing which is what children really need. “Apart from resorting to legal and professional help, the abused parent should go the extra mile to help their child (or children),” says Dr Nargis. Healthy parenting through love and affection is one of the main things Dr Nargis proposes to protect our children. She also advises abused parents to encourage children to become involved in peer group activities to enhance their social interactions and keep them occupied.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Women’s safety begins at home
Did you know that Pakistan has been ranked as the third most dangerous country for women, with almost 90% of the female population suffering from domestic violence? In spite of these shocking statistics, we have done little to eradicate the problem. Luckily, just across the border, Indian filmmaker Raajaysh Chetwal has been working hard towards making the world safer through a five-minute short-film entitled Women’s Safety Begins at Home.
Released last November, the film depicts the story of two families who meet for dinner. At first sight, both sets of parents appear happy but as their conversation continues, it becomes clear that there is much more to them than meets the eye. Eventually, their secrets (both husbands are abusive, one resorting to verbal insults and the other physically assaulting his wife) are revealed through the actions of their innocent children. The film is short, simple and highlights the cycle of domestic abuse that causes children to think that it is okay to violate women. You can watch the video at: https://vimeo.com/112808252
Warning signs a child might be suffering
Everyone experiences abuse in different ways. Children are particularly vulnerable as they might see it happen firsthand, notice parents’ injuries, get hurt during an episode or simply hear about violence from other sources. But they will almost always react to it in some way or the other. Some of the most common reactions include:
– Anxiety or depression.
– Difficulty in sleeping, including nightmares or flashbacks.
– Frequent complains of physical symptoms such as tummy aches.
– Wetting the bed.
– Temper tantrums.
– Immature behaviour.
– Problems at school, such as truanting.
– Reclusive behaviour.
– Lower self-esteem.
– Use of alcohol or drugs.
– Inflicting self-harm.
– Eating disorders.
In the presence of any of the above, it is necessary to talk to the child or seek professional help.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 29th, 2015.