For years, 15-year-old Samnang* endured beatings every weekend as his father became drunk and violent.
Samnang and his mother were often slapped and kicked, until one night when the abuse went even further.
“Two years ago, my father blamed my mother for not cooking well for him. He started fighting with her and hitting her. I begged him to stop, but instead he took a stick and started beating me. I cried, but he beat me until there was blood on my back,” said Samnang, who now lives with his aunt in Phnom Penh, estranged from his abusive father.
Samnang is not alone in his ordeal of childhood violence. Physical abuse is the most common form of violence experienced by children in Cambodia: more than half of the nation’s minors encounter some form of physical violence before the age of 18, according to the results of a nationwide survey released by the government and UNICEF yesterday.
In most cases, the children know their abuser; parents are the most common perpetrator of the first incident of childhood physical violence.
Emotional, sexual and physical abuse of children has long been a rampant issue afflicting the health and livelihood of many Cambodians, but was not, until now, a tallied, quantified and contextualised problem. Based on interviews with over 2,500 participants between ages 13 and 24, the Cambodia Violence Against Children Survey for the first time calculates the magnitude and nature of violence against the nation’s children.
“Violence against children is too often a hidden problem. Breaking the silence around it and initiating a conversation is the first challenge,” said Rana Flowers, country representative for UNICEF, which coordinated the survey along with the Ministry of Planning.
In addition to physical violence, more than a quarter of children are subjected to emotional abuse by a parents or another relative, and an estimated 5 per cent of males and females reported being sexually abused as a child. Three-quarters of the victims endured multiple episodes of violence before their eighteenth birthday.
“This abuse often takes place in settings where children should feel safest, including at home, in school or at a neighbour’s house,” said Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children.
A significant number of the respondents in the household survey had never previously divulged their abuse. Almost half of the women, and nearly three-quarters of the men who had experienced sexual violence as a child had never told anyone about it before.
Female interviewees worried about the “inappropriateness” of discussing a sexual topic, whereas boys more frequently cited that it was unacceptable to gossip about adults.
“The shame of sexual violence, and rape in particular, was cited in relation to fear of being stigmatised and rejected by families or communities,” the survey says.
“Violence that did not result in hospitalisation seemed to be considered as not requiring any kind of response by adults.”
But the internalised trauma of the abuse manifested in a variety of emotional, behavioural, and health problems.
“Exposure to violence in childhood changes the brain’s architecture and the way people age, the effects go far beyond the short-term,” said Howard Kress, a behavioural scientist from the US Centers for Disease Control, which assisted the study.
Extrapolating from the survey’s results, an economist at China Agriculture University found Cambodians exposed to childhood violence faced increased risks of mental disease, STIs, self-harm, cardiovascular disease and perpetuating further aggression and violence themselves. The long-term health consequences translated into an enormous financial toll, costing Cambodia an estimated $161 million in 2013, or 1.06 per cent of the country’s GDP, the analysis says.
“Ending violence against children … also makes economic sense,” said UN special representative Santos Pais.
The survey recommends the national response focus on changing perceptions that encourage impunity, accept abuse as a child-rearing practice and prevent sufferers from speaking out or seeking help.
The survey’s figures are hoped to initiate policy implications – yesterday Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An called on 12 ministries to promote awareness and effective use of legislation – but for now, the harmful impacts of the abuse continue to take a mostly unnoticed and unaddressed toll.
“I do not study anymore because I have to work at a rice shop washing dishes,” said 15-year-old Samnang. “I miss my mum. I pity her so much. When I am stronger, I will help her and tell my father to please stop hurting her and me.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.