How impactful are awareness campaigns?

Taking a look at child abuse and what needs to change

By Bernadine Rodrigo

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort however light”.

While most nations have publicly taken a stand against violence and abuse against all individuals, especially children, Sri Lanka is a country that is still lagging behind in terms of the matter. Many Sri Lankan individuals see abuse in the modern world as nothing more than a method of discipline and it is a common child-rearing practice in the country.

Statistics provided by World Vision Lanka for 2018 show that 14.4% of female children and 13.8% of male children in Sri Lanka have reported experiencing not just physical abuse, but also sexual abuse, and the National Child Protection Authority receives over 9,000 complaints of violence against children every year.

What goes on in the mind of an abuser?

Counselling psychologist Nivendra Uduman explained the thought process of those who engage in abusing children. “An abuser could engage in harming children for a number of reasons. For example, there are some people who may be sexually attracted to children (paedophilia) and gain sexual gratification through young children,” he noted, adding that there could be others who feel the need to be close to another person, in which abuse could be a way for them to act out difficult and painful emotions.

He went on to say that there is also the need to feel powerful, and people who have experienced domestic violence, sexual violence, etc. while growing up may abuse children in order to have a sense of control in their lives.

“Children are usually targeted because they are more vulnerable than adults. A person who may abuse a child may not necessarily think of whether it is right or wrong. In fact, factors such as not being able to control their feelings, having a poor sense of empathy, the constant (negative) messages received through the media and society, and sexualising women and children as well as the need for power and control often contributes towards abusive tendencies,” he explained.

Uduman continued to note that society, on one hand, can seem outraged and disgusted when it comes to abuse, but at the same time, it promotes and encourages it via messages delivered through pornography. “An abuser also might have supportive friends who directly or indirectly normalise and encourage abuse. Some organisations like care homes, orphanages, etc. that have rigid, hierarchical structures can also leave space for abuse because there can be minimal positive relationships between adults and children.”

Any context, according to Uduman, that makes it hard for children to feel heard can make them vulnerable to abuse. He, however, further stated that it is important to note that none of the above reasons takes away the abuser’s responsibility for their behaviour.

Taking a look at the abused

He also explained what consequences the victims would suffer having faced abuse. “Abuse can have serious physical, psychological, and social consequences for a child and an adult. Physically, a child could experience problems in his/her reproductive system, kidney, and bladder, and experience neurological problems, injury and disability, sexually transmitted disease, juvenile arthritis, etc., which can continue on to adulthood. A child may also experience problems with memory, mood, and overactivation of the fight-or-flight response which will leave the child in a constant state of alertness, causing long-term damage to the body due to chronic secretion of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.”

This, he explained, can also develop into mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “The risk of suicide due to abuse must also be highlighted. The experience of abuse can also bring about academic problems, difficulties trusting others, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships.

Another important consideration in children is traumatic bonding. This is where the victim of abuse and the abuser bond through cycles of trauma and violence, where there is intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment.”

Explaining further, Uduman shared that this is the misuse of fear, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology in order to keep someone entangled in a traumatic cyclical relationship. The constant feelings of anxiety and anticipation caused by inconsistent episodes of abuse can create a sense of gratitude towards the abuser for the preservation of life. This is known as “paradoxical gratitude”, he noted.

Uduman elaborated that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse can experience difficulties with intimacy and sex, body image issues, problems with regulating emotions, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. “People who have experienced abuse can also feel like they have lost personal control and can have confusions with regard to their identity as an individual. The stigma and shame surrounding abuse can also leave a person vulnerable to emotional and interpersonal problems.”

Zoning in on awareness campaigns

Of course, while the “uninformed” continue in the path of “disciplining” children who barely know right from wrong, there is a sector of society that strives to put an end to the barbaric actions of those with no regard for the lives of the future of the Earth.

World Vision is one such organisation that has been working in Sri Lanka since 1977, aiming to maintain the wellbeing of vulnerable communities with a special focus on children and creating a child-friendly society based on communities of trust where each child has hope, equal opportunity, and is empowered to fulfil his/her full potential.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Sri Lanka became one of the first 12 “pathfinding” countries on the planet due to the Government’s initiative to end violence including abuse, neglect, and exploitation against children by 2030, and in October 2017, World Vision joined hands with the Government of Sri Lanka as they established the “It Takes A Nation” campaign as the local version of their global “It Takes A World’ campaign which attends specifically to end sexual and physical violence against children. As part of this, on 24 September, World Vision Lanka partnered with Sri Lanka Railways to launch a rather mobile – consequently widespread – campaign. Speaking at the press conference before the launch, World Vision Lanka National Director Dr. Dhanan Senathirajah said: “We see that violence scars children for life and this affects the wellness of the communities for a whole generation. This is a great example of World Vision Lanka working with the Government and government institutions to make the lives of our children better every day.”

At the same event, also sharing thoughts on the initiative, Sri Lanka Railways General Manager M.J.D. Fernando said: “I am happy to be a part of this effort to end violence against children. We at Sri Lanka Railways believe that it is important to take this step towards protecting our future generation.”

The campaign was carried out at the Fort Railway Station, where stickers and banners were attached inside the trains and along the structures of the station platforms in order to remind those who commute in the trains, especially parents and adults, to end all forms of violence against children and bring them up with love. Along with the sticker campaign at Fort, World Vision Lanka intends to work together with Sri Lanka Railways to display similar messages in other prominent stations to prompt adults to rethink the way they engage with children.

During the initiation of the campaign, while the stickers and banners were being hung, the hoard of commuters, who were far too busy to look anywhere besides at their own feet, curiously looked on and some even went on to photograph the occurrence. Even children were intrigued and carefully looked at each display with sincere interest. As this was occurring, through the microphones, instead of train announcements, advice and a description of the happenings were delivered. While there is no doubt that many individuals clearly received the message, the question still remains of whether any action by individual people would be taken, or in this case, not taken.

Will the statement “for those who understand, no explanation is necessary, for those who do not, no explanation is possible” be proven right?

Do awareness campaigns have an impact?

Many awareness programmes have been carried out all around the country over the years. For instance, Dr. Tush Wikramanayaka founded the campaign named “Stop Child Cruelty”, which aims to end corporal punishment by 2020 – just three months away. Further, The PEACE project was another public awareness campaign conducted in Sri Lanka, taking the form of a stage play which was witnessed by 6,000 people. UNICEF, as we all know, constantly organises programmes such as panel discussions and presentations to educate people about the harms of child abuse. For example, on 2 September, one such panel discussion was held with the participation of parliamentarians from across South Asia, including Speaker of Parliament of Sri Lanka Karu Jayasuriya.

They also spoke up on 20 September about a recent incident which sadly shows that, despite the commendable efforts, child abuse still prevails in our country. They claimed that they were deeply shocked and saddened by the news of the beating of two young monks by a small boutique owner, displaying corporal punishment for an alleged wrongdoing. The occurrence of such an event so publicly and, more shockingly, involving minors, brings us back to the biggest and least asked question with regard to awareness campaigns: Do they really have an impact?

Uduman spoke on the matter, saying that, in his opinion, we as a nation have failed our children. “We currently have a system where it contributes to the cycle of trauma through institutionalisation, difficult legal proceedings, and abuse and violence inside institutions that are supposed to keep children safe. There have been countless awareness programmes carried out in many creative ways by the Government and the NGOs. However, the efficacy of these programmes is always questionable,” he said.

Awareness programmes, added Uduman, have little effect if we do not have a comprehensive system that is child-friendly. The lack of sexual and reproductive health education in our schools, the stigma associated with sex, and the lack of trained professionals who work with children and families are key indicators as to why awareness programmes don’t always work.

Uudman thinks schools need to take responsibility for this sort of awareness right from primary school, where children are educated about “good touch” and “bad touch” and other related sensitive topics. According to him, conducting awareness programmes is not sufficient if we do not have enough resources like counsellors, medical doctors, lawyers, etc. who are specifically trained to work with children.

“Another perspective is that awareness programmes alone are not going to change attitudes and beliefs people hold about different issues. Potential perpetrators also must be addressed. Counselling and psychosocial services also need to be offered for perpetrators rather than just incarcerating them.”

He believes that those who perpetrate abuse are also those who are hurting, and our system does not address their needs. In this regard, he said: “Currently, I do not believe that awareness programmes have contributed to a lasting change. They may have contributed to parents and other members of the community becoming more aware of how to recognise abuse and the process to follow in the event a child is abused. However, we are not addressing the core issue, which is the lack of sexual and reproductive health education that also teaches consent, respect, and body awareness.”

Similarly, when the question was posed to the public, they answered with a very similar common theme. “Just telling people things is not enough. You need to follow up and check on them. In fact, they must be guided by authorities so that they would not deviate from the correct path. People do not simply listen when you tell them once, especially when it comes to things such as how to raise their own children,” shared a businessman.

A housewife claimed: “After one day or simply a few hours, people forget what they learn. They become inspired as they hear or see an event, but then they simply forget it.

Once a poster is hung, it gains a great amount of attention. However, with time, it simply becomes a similar sight. Basically, just an awareness programme isn’t enough.”

Following this, Uduman was questioned about what kind of programmes would work. Accordingly, the programmes ought to be comprehensive where not just child abuse but abuse and violence as a spectrum can be spoken about. The stigma that shrouds abuse, according to Uduman, which prevents children from talking about it or seeking help, must be eradicated.

“We know that most cases of abuse happen within the family, usually by someone who is close to the child. So, families need to be educated on how to remain vigilant and, most importantly, to not hide behind the knowledge that their child is being abused or pretend that it never happened. Families must be educated to acknowledge it, help the child feel heard, and take action. This is what we must strive for in order to prevent the cycle of trauma continuing on for generations and generations ahead,” he noted.