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The high cost of child abuse

A 4-year-old girl sits with her leg chained to a pillar in Koh Kong
A 4-year-old girl sits with her leg chained to a pillar in Koh Kong last year. Regional maltreatment of children can lead to damaging economic effects, a new report states. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The high cost of child abuse

The maltreatment of children costs countries in East Asia and the Pacific $209 billion per year, the equivalent to 2 per cent of the region’s GDP, according to a newly released study from UNICEF.

The report drew on more than 360 studies of child maltreatment produced across the region since 2000, with emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, the witnessing of domestic violence and death from maltreatment all given an estimated cost.

“Child maltreatment can have lifelong economic consequences resulting directly or indirectly from associated behavioural problems, mental and physical health conditions, increased risk for violent behaviours, disability from physical injury, reduced health-related quality of life, lower levels of educational achievement and impaired capacity of adults to generate income,” reads the report.

Using the data from the reports, researchers calculated the prevalence of the types of abuse and applied them to data from the World Health Organisation’s 2004 Global Burden of Disease project to draw comparisons between four sub-regions. It also used World Bank data to draw comparisons between different income levels.

The report found that between 14 and 37 per cent of children from the different sub-regions experience at least one form of abuse before they turn 18, while different forms of abuse differed in prevalence according to income level. It also found patterns of abuse differed between the genders – with girls more likely to suffer from sexual abuse, while boys suffered more heavily from physical and emotional abuse.

Although abuse tended to be increasingly more prevalent as income levels fell, sexual abuse among girls was more prevalent in lower-middle income countries than in low-income countries, while neglect was more prevalent in upper-middle-income countries than lower-middle-income countries.

Cambodia is currently listed as a low-income country, though projected by various international agencies to reach lower-middle income status in the coming years.

In comparison to the report’s findings, a study of child maltreatment in Cambodia released by UNICEF in November found that 50 per cent of the Kingdom’s children suffered at least one form of abuse.

“This research allows us to demonstrate the scale of the problem in Cambodia and helps us make a powerful case for change,” said UNICEF Cambodia Representative Rana Flowers in a press release accompanying the new regional study.

While the report’s authors acknowledged the limitations of attempting to give maltreatment a cost, it suggested the findings were “conservative”, given a number of major health and social outcome categories could not be calculated.

It also emphasised that raising awareness was a key motive for producing the study, and urged governments to take the results as a call for greater action on the issue.

That call was backed by Friends International, a UNICEF partner dedicated to combating child abuse in the Kingdom through its ChildSafe program. “All forms of abuse and violence against children are clearly unacceptable, so we must implement viable solutions,” said international coordinator for ChildSafe Khemreth Vann.

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