It is time to break the silence around child abuse and neglect in our respective communities.
An estimated 1 in 4 children experience some form of child abuse or neglect in their lifetimes. This type of unimaginable trauma contributes to depression, problems at school, violence, diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, and suicide. To significantly reduce child abuse or neglect, we must begin treating them right away as serious public health.
Yet, globally an estimated 95 million children experience abuse annually, with the highest rates reported in the World Health Organization (WHO) African region. The earliest study of child sexual abuse in Africa was probably by Westcott, et al. who described 18 cases of child sexual abuse at a Cape Town hospital back in 1984. More recently, in 2015, a South African study reported lifetime rates of 34% for physical abuse, 16% for emotional abuse and 20% for sexual abuse amongst 15–17 year olds. In nearby Swaziland, nearly one-in-five females had experienced physical abuse in their lifetime with nearly one-in-twenty having experienced abuse that was so severe, that it required medical attention. Alarmingly, child abuse only recently received recognition as a social problem in Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest economies.
Risk factors identified for lifetime childhood physical abuse included maternal death prior to age 13, having lived with three or more families during their childhood, and having experienced emotional abuse prior to age 13. Child marriage is common in West Africa and in some countries in East and Southern Africa, especially Mozambique, Uganda and Ethiopia. There is a significant amount of violence experienced in these early marriages and a study in Zambia from a Demographic and Health Survey showed a 33.3% level of spousal violence.
About 200,000 children are trafficked annually across borders in the sub regions of West and Central Africa, from and into countries such as Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania . Ghanaian children are particularly trafficked to Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria and the Gambia for domestic service and exploitative labour
According to a majority of all racial and ethnic groups surveyed, child and family services, followed by state and federal governments and then law enforcement, bear most responsibility to end child abuse and neglect. Across populations, most people agree that state and federal governments should fund research to better understand child abuse and neglect, find ways to prevent it, and intervene when needed. Non-profit organizations, academia, and the private sector should also play a role, the survey respondents said.
To achieve a culture change in how we identify, prevent, and treat child abuse and neglect, it is imperative that the public health community and everyone with a stake in this issue work together to advocate for more research and evidence-based strategies to ensure the well-being of children and their families.