Child Abuse


It is the right of every child to have protection against violence, exploitation and abuse. This is a simple truth, but it is not a reality for many children who are the victims of violence, exploitation and abuse. It does not discriminate is prevalent at every socio-economic level, crosses ethnic and cultural lines and is present within all religions and at all levels of education. According to an article published by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “Some girls and boys are particularly vulnerable because of gender, race, ethnic origin or socio-economic status. Higher levels of vulnerability are often associated with children with disabilities, who are orphaned, indigenous, from ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. Other risks for children are associated with living and working on the streets, living in institutions and detention, and living in communities where inequality, unemployment and poverty are highly concentrated.”

This article also indicates that the perpetrators of the abuse are usually known to the child and can include parents, other family members, caretakers, teachers, employers, law enforcement authorities, state and non-state actors and other children. A sad fact is that only a few crimes of violence, exploitation and abuse are reported and investigated, resulting in the criminals not being held accountable.

The Children’s Act of 2005 (Act No. 38 of 2005) sets out principles relating to the care and protection of children and defines parental responsibilities and rights. Protection of children’s rights, as described in the Act, include the right to family care or parental care or appropriate alternative care when removed from the family environment, the right to social services and the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.

Child homicide patterns in South Africa

South African Medical Research Council Research Brief: August 2012 Click here

South African Medical Research Council

UN Global Report for the United Nations on the study on violence against children 29 August 2006. Click here


Children often experience more than one types of abuse by their abusers.
It could include:


Neglect is a form of abuse and is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. This includes food, water, shelter, war...
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Neglect is a form of abuse and is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs.

This includes food, water, shelter, warmth, failure to get or follow through with medical care, leaving a child without arranging the necessary care for them and / or with no intention of returning; or unwillingness or inability to provide appropriate care.

The UN Global Study on the Violence against Children (2006) provides an overview of the settings within which abuse occurs. This study highlights that children the family has the greatest potential to protect children and provide for their physical and emotional safety, yet it is particularly this ‘private’ space where children could be most vulnerable. The form of abuse could vary depending on the age of the child with the “shaken baby syndrome”, the abuse by shaking of small children, to discipline related psychological and physical abuse due to harsh punishment and sexual abuse.

Cultural practices such as genital mutilation and arranged marriages of young girls such as in the practice of ukuthwala where young girls are forced into marriage, often with the consent of their parents also infringe on the rights of children.

Schools and educational settings are also often sites of abuse among learners / children themselves as in the form of bullying, cyber bullying, sexual assault and between learners and educators in the form of harsh punishment, sexual abuse and other forms of abuse where the adults wield power and authority over children to control and exploit them.

Other sites where children are vulnerable to acts of abuse include residential, institutional settings such as children’s homes or places of safety and the broader community where exposure to drug abuse, gun related violence, trafficking and rape is also rife in our communities.

These settings where children are vulnerable to abuse, become key settings to target interventions that will protect the rights and safety of our children.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when an adult or an older and more powerful person uses a child for a sexual purpose. This may involve a stra...
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Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when an adult or an older and more powerful person uses a child for a sexual purpose.

This may involve a stranger, but it is mostly perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. This includes any touching or fondling for sexual purposes, oral sex, sexual intercourse, an adult exposing themselves to the child, or seeking to have a child touch them.

It also includes voyeurism, photographing children inappropriately, involving the child in pornographic activities or prostitution, or using the internet and phone to initiate sexual conversations.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when the emotional, psychological or social well-being and sense of worth of a child is continually assau...
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Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when the emotional, psychological or social well-being and sense of worth of a child is continually assaulted.

This is almost always present when other forms of abuse occur.

This can include criticizing, rejecting, degrading, ignoring, isolating, exploiting and terrorising a child. Effects may only become evident, as a child grows older.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse which can be described as the use of excessive or inappropriate discipline or violence whether or not it was inte...
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Physical abuse

Physical abuse which can be described as the use of excessive or inappropriate discipline or violence whether or not it was intended to hurt the child.

Injuries can vary in severity from minor bruising, burns, welts, bite marks and fractures to the most extreme form – death.


The following are warning signs and symptoms that could indicate the presence of abuse. The presence of warning signs doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is being abused but recognising these signs could assist you in helping the child to communicate the abuse. A child who’s being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused and may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. It’s therefore important to recognise these red flags and get professional assistance if these symptoms persist.

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Changes in behavior – such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity – or changes in school performance
  • Depression, anxiety or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • An apparent lack of supervision
  • Frequent absences from school or reluctance to ride the school bus
  • Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
  • Attempts at running away
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior
  • Attempts at suicide

Physical abuse signs and symptoms

Sexual abuse signs and symptoms

Emotional abuse signs and symptoms

Neglect signs and symptoms

Parental behavior

Physical abuse signs and symptoms

– Unexplained injuries, such as bruises, fractures or burns
– Injuries that don’t match the given explanation
– Untreated medical or dental problems

Sexual abuse signs and symptoms

– Sexual behavior or knowledge that’s inappropriate for the child’s age
– Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection
– Blood in the child’s underwear
– Statements that he or she was sexually abused
– Trouble walking or sitting
– Abuse of other children sexually

Emotional abuse signs and symptoms

– Delayed or inappropriate emotional development
– Loss of self-confidence or self-esteem
– Social withdrawal
– Depression
– Headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
– Avoidance of certain situations, such as refusing to go to school or ride the bus
– Desperately seeks affection

Neglect signs and symptoms

– Poor growth or weight gain
– Poor hygiene
– Lack of clothing or supplies to meet physical needs
– Taking food or money without permission
– Eating a lot in one sitting or hiding food for later
– Poor record of school attendance
– Lack of appropriate attention for medical, dental or psychological problems, even though the parents   have been notified
– Emotional swings that are inappropriate or out of context to the situation
– Indifference

Parental behavior

Sometimes a parent’s demeanor or behavior sends red flags about child abuse. Warning signs include a parent who:

– Shows little concern for the child
– Appears unable to recognize physical or emotional distress in the child
– Denies that any problems exist at home or school, or blames the child for the problems
– Consistently blames, belittles or berates the child and describes the child with negative terms, such   as “worthless” or “evil”
– Expects the child to provide him or her with attention and care and seems jealous of other family   members getting attention from the child
– Uses harsh physical discipline or asks teachers to do so
– Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
– Severely limits the child’s contact with others
– Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child’s injuries or no explanation at all

If you’re concerned that your child or another child has been abused, seek help immediately. The sooner you get help and support for the child, the better the child’s chance of recovery.



The effects of child abuse vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors, including:

  • The child’s age and developmental status when the abuse or neglect occurred
  • The type of maltreatment (physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, etc.)
  • The frequency, duration, and severity of the maltreatment
  • The relationship between the child and the perpetrator

There are a range of physical, psychological and social consequences of child abuse

Social and economic costs

Physical effects

Psychological effects

Social and economic costs

– Social consequences
– Pressure and costs on health services
– Lack of employment

Physical effects

The immediate physical effects of abuse or neglect can be relatively minor (bruises or cuts) or severe (broken bones, haemorrhage, or even death). In some cases, the physical effects are temporary; however, the pain and suffering and long term implications should not be discounted. Some of the physical consequences include:

– Abusive head trauma
– Impaired brain development
– Disrupted neuro development
– HIV infection
– Unwanted pregnancy,
– Unsafe abortion and a range of adverse reproductive complications
– Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction
– Over time health conditions such as cardio vascular conditions, lung and liver disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and obesity can develop.

Psychological effects

The immediate emotional effects of abuse and neglect could include isolation, fear and an inability to trust. These can translate into lifelong psychological consequences, including low self-esteem, depression, and relationship difficulties. Researchers have identified links between child abuse and neglect and the following:

– Difficulties in development during infancy.
– Poor mental and emotional health.
– Cognitive difficulties
– Social difficulties
– Difficulties during adolescence and building relationships
– Juvenile delinquency and adult criminality
– Alcohol and other drug abuse
– Abusive behaviour
– Depression
– Suicidal thoughts and suicide

Fact sheet:

Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect

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Child sexual abuse is a global phenomenon

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