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Can Indian Laws Pull Child Witnesses Out Of The Shadows Of Parental Violence?

Despite govt's commitment to protect children who grow up watching abuse between parents, they remain invisibilised.

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At a time when the NFHS-5 data is clearly showing that almost a third of child population in India is being exposed to parental abuse and violence in their homes, the Government of India has introduced a significant programme named 'Mission Vatsalya' with the motto to 'leave no child behind.'

Ironically, these children who witness parental abuse remain invisible and left behind despite the Government’s commitment to Child Protection. It seems they will have to go a long way to get their dues to be recognised as ‘in need of care’ and ‘to be protected’.

Domestic or intimate partner violence cannot be looked upon as a phenomenon (act of violence between a perpetrator and victim) in isolation and hence, children who become a party to parental violence form a significant part of the picture. 

As per UNICEF, globally, 133 to 275 million children are estimated to have been exposed to domestic or parental violence. But these numbers do not depict the entire horrible story of the children whose parents have been involved in partner abuse. It can only be understood if looked at from the perspective of the children who survive parental abuse and violence.
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When Children Become Bystander Victims of Violence

Recently, the national and state-wise data of National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) was made public and it revealed numbers of ever-married women who reportedly experienced spousal violence. It explained almost 33 per cent of ever-married women have been subjected to spousal cruelty in India and the capital of the country proved to be a replica almost by reporting 30 per cent of the women being abused by their spouse in the National Capital Territory(NCT) of Delhi. Yet, the children in these families where violence persists, remain unnoticed.  

The bitter fact is that in India, the statistics don't fully reveal how many children living in families get to witness parental violence. Though no official data exists, as a matter of assumption and based on inferences drawn from NFHS-5 data, children in 33 percent families in India have been exposed to parental abuse or violence.

The researchers prefer to call them the unseen victims of parental violence since the plight of the victim (female or mother in majority of the cases) of the violence is well recognised by the society but their children largely remain the hidden witnesses. 

“Families under stress produce children under stress. If a spouse is being abused and there are children in the home, the children are affected by the abuse.” (Ackerman and Pickering, 1989)

Distressing events during childhood like parental abuse and violence may generate lethal stress in children. Researchers have established the relationship between exposure to parental violence and adverse outcomes on the child witnesses in short as well as long term.
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How Impact of Parental Violence Can Outlast Childhood Years

The author of this piece Dr Seema Naaz, Assistant Professor, Centre for Early Childhood Development & Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi have conducted research to understand the impact of exposure to parental violence on children living in Delhi and NCR. She interviewed adult survivors of parental conflicts and attempted to understand their lived experiences. Additionally, child psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and social workers working with children and families were interviewed to understand the situation from a professional’s perspective.

The consequences of exposure to parental violence are countless that may include hindering physical health of the child witness to affecting mental and emotional health as well as impeding academic performance of the children in their peer group interactions. This impact is not limited just to childhood years but can even get prolonged to their adolescence and even adulthood.

Professionals providing psychosocial support to children and families have repeatedly been talking about the ways children get harmed by virtue of being witnesses of parental conflicts. 

One of the social workers working with Crime Against Women Cell (CAWC), New Delhi quoted, “They [children] become silent observers of the violence [parental violence] and find themselves helpless as they cannot resolve parental issues and at times get maltreated. Their confidence level goes down and they go into depression as they find themselves powerless. They live in guilt due to failure of not being able to stop the violence and at times they blame themselves for the violence.”

Constant anxiety, fears, and restlessness could accompany the children living with parental violence and may affect their lives up to a great extent that they might to leave their homes or stay alone. An adult survivor of parental violence said, “I used to be so insecure [anxious] that I used to think [wonder] that will it be ever over or not. That anxiety and insecurity increased so much that I did not want to live with my family; I wanted a place of mine where my parents would not be there.” 

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The lack of policies and programmes to address these children and not recognising them as a vulnerable section of the society poses a major challenge in the way of giving them their dues. Adding to the same is parental insensitivity and resistance to accept the ill-effects abuse could have on the children. 

Is Domestic Violence a Class Issue?

An interesting bias that social scientists have encountered when enquired about prevalence of spousal abuse or domestic violence is that, “domestic abuse or partner violence happens and exists among the people from poor families ie those belonging to lower socio economic strata." However, the figures are suggestive of prevalence of domestic violence among all the sections of the society. The society need to look at the issue in a rational and unbiased way.

The loss incurred by the child witnesses of parental violence is irreparable and irreversible hence there is dire need to introduce interventions that would prevent the acts of violence among parents or intimate partners and modify their behaviours. Hence educating the parents, professionals working at various settings like schools, police, judiciary and hospitals as well as the larger society about the ill effects of the children’s exposure is a must since there the curative approach would not be successful in the context.

At the larger level, there is dire need to identify and acknowledge the child witnesses of parental violence as those in need of care and protection and not letting them seclude from the mainstream.

In attempt to make these children visible, it is needed to a great extent to strengthen the child protection systems in the country and the first step to achieve the same is to initiate a dialogue not only among the academicians and policy makers however the public. Henceforth, it is to be accepted that a child’s exposure to parental abuse may have atrocious consequences and sensitising the larger population is a must.
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The Shortfalls of Existing Laws and What Can Bring Relief

At present, there are three foremost legislations India that focus on domestic violence issue which include 304 B, 498 A and The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2015. Despite having several domestic violence laws in the country, almost all of them talk about the victim and perpetrator of the abuse however, fail to provide assistance and effective relief to the children who witness parental violence.

It seems while drafting the laws, children were side-lined and not treated as an integral part of the family. Even the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 does not include them in the category of children in need of care and protection. The recent scheme of 'Mission Vatsalya' too fell short of its objective.

The systems categorically failed to even identify them as a section of society that needs care and protection. Here arises the need to relook at the legislations form the lens of children in order to safeguard their rights.

Dr Seema Naaz is an Assistant Professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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