Every year, 275 million children around the world are victims and witnesses of assault and abuse towards their mothers. Stress, stunted growth, eating disorders and even drug use and suicide are just some of the effects domestic abuse can have on children
By Ignacio Torres – “Dad, stop hitting my mum!” “No, leave her alone! She’s my mum!” “Let her go. Don’t kill her!” These are not made-up phrases. They are desperate cries of millions of children witnessing the violence exerted against their mothers at home. And they are not only witnesses but also victims, who, from an early age, must bear the physical, psychological and social consequences of violence.
Every year between 133 million and 275 million children worldwide suffer as a result of domestic violence, according to the world report “Violence against children”, written for the United Nations by independent expert Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro.
This figure, however, is a conservative estimate when compared with UNICEF, whose last study emphasized that a staggering figure of 300 million children aged between two and four suffer abuse at home; 176 million of whom live with a mother who suffers violence from her partner.
Assault and abuse against women in the family home often leads to child abuse, and can even result in death. In Spain alone, so far eight children have been murdered at the hands of their parents this year; the vast majority of them killed as a way to get revenge on the child’s mother, according to data collected by the country’s State Observatory on Violence against Women.
This data contrasts sharply with the figure from 2016, where one dead child was recorded. While this was happening in Spain, in the same year the number of children murdered by their parents reached as many as 25 in France.
In other countries such as Australia, specifically in New South Wales, 65 children died between 2000 and 2014, according to a local Coroners Court study.
These crimes are the result of a silent epidemic that does not distinguish between religion, race, social class or location. This is how more than half of children under 5 in Afghanistan live with a mother who suffers abuse from her partner. In the United Kingdom, 750,000 minors witness domestic abuse every year. In Israel, 500,000 children are exposed to violence in their homes, with only 2,000 cases reported, and in the United States, 10 million children live with an abusive parent.
Life-long effects and impacts on health
Recurring nightmares about a traumatic event such as beatings or their mother dying in front of them are the immediate effects in an abused child’s life. However, studies show that situations of repeated abuse and assault can cause a disturbance of the nervous and immune system and can lead to social, emotional and cognitive limitations, as well as gastrointestinal problems, allergies, stress, stunted growth and language delay.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to distinguish between age groups. Children under 5 years of age who feel responsible for conflicts between their parents are the most vulnerable group. Often, they show signs of sleep disturbance, eating disorders, uncontrollable crying, sadness, weight stagnation and loss of bladder control.
Children between 6 and 12 years old may suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, isolation and poor school performance.
Children may also experience attention and concentration deficits while teenagers are more likely to use drugs, consume alcoholic beverages, commit crimes and even kill themselves. Aggressive attitudes are common in all age groups, which is a warning sign as this behaviour can be passed on through generations.
In which households does domestic violence occur?
Domestic violence occurs among all social and economic classes. However, people who live in situations in which the parents have a low level of education, a lack of income and overcrowding in the home are the most prone to suffer from domestic violence. “Violent parents are more likely to be young, single and poor. It is likely that these associations are related to the stress caused by poverty, unemployment and social isolation “, as explained in the report “Violence against children”.
Studies also show that there are other factors such as the mother’s age, as the younger she is the more likely she is to become a victim. Other factors include excessive alcohol and substance consumption. In Canada, for example, experts found that women whose partners abuse alcohol were five times more likely to be attacked by their spouses than those who lived with people who did not drink.
Willingness and work are the keys to creating a healthier future
In light of this data, all societies and countries in the world must put an end to violence against women and children. Resilience at the highest level is needed, as is the creation of strategic alliances such as the 2030 Agenda; a committment set forth by the 193 members of the UN, who, among their many other goals, aim to improve policies for children that contribute to bettering their quality of life. In this respect, taking care of children’s mental health emerges as one of the most important obligations on the road to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Agenda. However, children—particularly those with an abused mother—have a high probability of suffering from behavioural and emotional disorders, problems that can lead to acts of violence later in life, being abusive adults or submissive to abuse.
It is up to all of us to change this