Pastor Winnie Omuboba Morganson is a lawyer, astute politician, and one time Chief Whip of Asari-Toru Legislative Assembly. She is a motivational speaker and mother. A firebrand member of the Nigerian Bar Association, she is the executive treasurer, Young Lawyers forum Degema Branch and also provides legal advice to the Young Female Progressives, a group of ladies with the core desire of raising young female voices in politics.
With a burning desire to see right-minded females in politics that will change the current narrative in the nation’s democracy, she is an unyielding advocate for the inalienable rights of women, the girl child and the rights of underprivileged children.
Speaking with LAWRENCE E. PAUL recently, she delves into the controversial topic of Child Abuse within the context of the family environment and beyond.
What is child abuse?
It is important to note that within much of professional literature, modern society and even legal circles the terms ‘child abuse and neglect’ and ‘child maltreatment’ are used interchangeably.
The World Health Organisation defines child abuse and neglect as all forms of physical and/or emotional treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.
It is commonly stated in legislation that the term ‘child abuse and neglect’ refers to behaviours and treatment that result in the actual and/or likelihood of harm to the child or young person. Furthermore, such behaviours may be intentional or unintentional and can include acts of omission such as neglect and commission such as abuse.
In what forms could child abuse occur?
Child abuse can result from physical, verbal, or sexual harm. While child abuse is often considered to take the form of an action, there are also examples of inaction that cause harm, such as neglect. Some children may be unaware that they are victims of child abuse until their later years. Abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal and sexual.
Religious freedom has become a point of contention in some cases of possible child abuse—some religious doctrines for instance, allow for medical neglect due to religious objections. There are also examples of some extreme religious acts that are considered child abuse in certain areas but which are acceptable in others.
Studies and research have shown that child abuse occurs predominantly within the family setting which should actually be the place children should feel most safe.
Can you throw more light on this?
As deeply troubling and harrowing as it may be, that is a correct assertion. I will however try to highlight certain issues that stand out within this narrative that lend truth to that assertion.
Firstly, family studies have shown that there is an intergenerational continuation theory of child abuse, which affirms that a boy severely abused by his father is very likely to become a violent adult. Specifically, one-third of abusive men were equally abused as children.
Men who have witnessed conjugal violence and have experienced parent-child aggression as little boys are more likely to use physical and verbal aggression within their relationships and the effects of these early experiences with abuse and violence begin to show up at the beginning of their relationships with women in later years.
For abusive men, violence frequently is a way to regain what they see as their lost control. Additionally, abusive men tend to have more health concerns (including depression, paranoid ideation and more), they feel more stress about parenting, and feel less empathy for their children.
Secondly, Contrary to public perception, the same research has shown that the most likely physical abuser of a young child will be that child’s mother, not a male in the household, although the mother’s plight often is complicated by her relationship with a cohabiting male.
Abusive mothers frequently are isolated and lack the parental and extended family or peer support that is necessary to maintain their self-esteem and to buffer the stress of raising children. Women with higher levels of community involvement have lower feelings of psychological aggression and are less likely to abuse their child.
Without this support, they often seek care and comfort from their children, treating these children as if they were older than they really are. When children fail to provide this support, the mother can become impatient, angry, and sometimes abusive, even when the child is only a crying infant.
Their abuse in-turn adds to their anxiety and feelings of helplessness. Child-abusing mothers tend to have a distorted view of their children. Not surprisingly, they judge them more negatively than do outsiders and tend to ignore their good points, focusing only on transgressions.
Typically, they often see their children’s transgressions as more serious than they actually are. The good in their children they ascribe to circumstances, but the bad they ascribe to their character. They tell their children what not to do rather than what to do, and they use force and physical punishment much more frequently necessary.
Child-abusing women often may have had poor quality relationships with their own mothers and experienced mother-daughter physical abuse as a child. The most likely causes of child abuse by a family member in fact, can be traced to the violence and abuse present in the childhood development of such people followed by the stress and discord in their current household.
Men and women with a history of child abuse, and who lived in a violent community and had lower authoritarian parenting styles have a more serious risk. In the period between their early experience with abusive parents and their later experiences with possibly an abusing “mate,” the future abusive parent or individual frequently becomes more aggressive and deviant, developing a hostile and rebellious way of acting. They will associate more with like minds of similar hostility and eventually, become abusive parents.
Furthermore, I need to add that Children are at risk of being abused if they are in families in which they see abuse. Thus, child abuse often is linked closely to the abuse of the mother. This is telling because abused mothers were significantly more likely to hurt their children when are being battered than when they were safe from their violent partners.
Considering this type of family background, it is no wonder that abusing families and individuals often are the most isolated. Increasingly, this isolation is most evident in the poorest neighbourhoods and lowest income-earning people. Tragically, child abusers are formed in this environment, and many will never know that children can be treated differently.
How can child abuse be identified?
Child abuse is common. It is important to understand and reduce the risks of abuse for our children if we can diligently familiarise ourselves with the signs of abuse. It must be noted that there is considerable overlap among children who are abused, with many suffering a combination of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or neglect.
Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that a child cannot understand or consent to. It includes acts such as fondling, oral-genital contact, and of course intercourse. It also includes exhibitionism, voyeurism, and exposure to obscenity.
Physical abuse occurs when a child’s body is injured as a result of hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or other show of force. Several studies show mind-boggling statistics that in this part of the world about 70% of children have been physically abused in their lifetime.
As I’ve stated in agreement with you earlier, child abuse mostly occurs within the family. A caregiver or someone they know, than abused outside of the home by a stranger, abuses more children.
Child neglect can include physical neglect (failing to provide food, clothing, shelter, or other physical necessities), emotional neglect (failing to provide love, comfort, or affection), or medical neglect (failing to provide needed medical care). Psychological or emotional abuse results from all of the above, but also can be associated with verbal abuse, which can harm a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being.
Honestly, I must say that It is not always easy to recognise when a child has been abused. Children who have been abused are often afraid to tell anyone, because they think they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Sometimes they remain quiet because the person who abused them is someone they love very much, or because of fear, or both.
Sometimes, parents also tend to overlook signs and symptoms of abuse, because they don’t want to face the truth. This is a serious mistake. A child who has been abused needs special support and treatment as early as possible. The longer he continues to be abused or is left to deal with the situation on his own, the harder it is for children to be able to heal and develop optimally physically and mentally.
Please understand that there are no behaviours that relate to a particular type of child abuse or neglect but expert opinions in this field have outlined a few physical signs and behavioural changes in children who may have experienced abuse or neglect:
They include Physical Signs such as Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained,
Failure to gain weight (especially in infants) or sudden dramatic weight gain, Genital pain or bleeding or even a sexually transmitted disease that would seem out of place for a child.
Other Changes that Should Raise Concern include Fearful behaviour such as (nightmares, depression, unusual fears), Abdominal pain, bed-wetting (especially if the child has already been toilet trained), also to be noticed could be attempts to run away or extreme sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for the child’s age or sudden change in self-confidence, headaches or stomach-aches with no medical cause, school failure, extremely passive or aggressive behaviour, desperately affectionate behaviour or social withdrawal or incredibly increased appetite for food.
Not all children who are abused have severe reactions. Usually the younger the child, the longer the abuse continues, and the closer the child’s relationship with the abuser, the more serious the mental health effects will be. A close relationship with a very supportive adult can increase resiliency, reducing some of the impact.
It appears rapists and sexual offenders are hardly convicted in Nigeria…?
(Cuts in) That is not true. Check your facts and get them straight. Rapists and sexual offenders are arrested and convicted all the time. The legal process just frowns on celebrating such individuals so you may not hear much of it within the press. In fact, I make bold to say that the Rivers state judiciary has secured over 20 rape convictions this year alone and more will still be secured.
What can the government do to improve this situation and protect children?
The government needs to act pro-actively and must engage in sustained advocacy, engage communities more and strengthen the capacity of first responders. The government also needs to improve medical facilities and offer better psychosocial support. It is unfortunate that some of our police officers are not properly trained to handle sexual abuse cases and so do not know what to do when they are confronted with it.
The government of Rivers state needs to take a cue from its counterpart in Lagos state and set up Family Support Units (FSU) across the whole of Rivers state and there should be such support unit in every police station in the state.
Are there any further means of intervention by the government and society?
There can never be enough done to curb such ill health to the family system and society at large. Further interventions should include forensic investigation of child abuse reports by the state child protection agencies, a robust provision for clinical treatment of physical and psychological injuries, family counselling services and help lines, and the provision of swift legal action by social and legal agencies against the perpetrator.
Every well meaning individual who desires that this menace of child abuse of what ever form must stop needs to pick up a mantle in any of three major areas — advocacy, awareness, and sensitisation. The few children care agencies and i cannot do it by ourselves; we need the help of everyone.
If you see something, say something. Don’t say it is not your business. It is, and it could be at your doorstep tomorrow. Starting from the family, to caregivers, schools and the community, everyone has a role to play in reducing child abuse to the barest minimum especially of the sexual kind of abuse. We must engage and teach kids how to set healthy boundaries, teach them the several con methods of predators and perverts and how to identify them so they can report it the moment someone tries it with them.
Within the family circle, we must teach our boys how to respect women and letting them know that assault of any kind is a crime. We must get it right from the cradle as rapists and abusers are not born that way but learned it one way or the other. We have to give them first-hand information on what to do and teach parents to inculcate the right values in their children.
When we do all this, including training first responders within the police’s capacity as well as medical personnel so that they can all provide improved response, then we can secure strong convictions before and self medicate this cancer within our society.
Any final word to parents who know of children who have been victims of child abuse?
I cannot say it enough times. If you suspect your child has been abused, get help immediately through your paediatrician or the state child care and protective agency. Physicians are legally obligated to report all suspected cases of abuse or neglect to the relevant state authorities.
Your paediatrician also will detect and treat any medical injuries or conditions. The doctor also may testify in court if necessary to obtain legal protection for the child or criminal prosecution of the person suspected of perpetrating the abuse or neglect.
If your child has been abused, you may be the only person who can help him/her. There is no good reason to delay reporting your suspicions of abuse. Denying the problem will only make the situation worse, allowing the abuse or neglect to continue unchecked and decreasing your child’s chance for optimal physical and mental health and well-being.
In any case of abuse or neglect, the child’s safety is of primary concern. He needs to be in a safe environment. Let us note that in the same vein, parents need support and as much information as possible too. Personal supervision of and involvement in your child’s activities are the best ways to prevent physical and sexual abuse outside the home.
Pay careful attention to your child’s reports and reactions to his experiences at childcare and school. Always investigate if your child tells you he’s been maltreated or if he undergoes a sudden unexplained change in behaviour.
Although you don’t want to frighten your child, you can teach him some basic rules of safety in a non-threatening manner. Teach him to keep his distance from strangers, not to wander away from you in unfamiliar territory, to say “no” when someone asks him to do something against his will, and always to tell you if someone hurts him or makes him feel bad.
We must never forget that open, two-way communication with your child provides the best chance that you will know early when a problem occurs. Emphasise that he will not get in trouble if he tells you about abuse or other confusing events. Emphasise that you need to know this to be able to keep him safe and that he will be all right if he tells you. Instead of teaching him that he’s surrounded by danger, teach him that he is strong, capable, and can count on you to keep him safe, as long as he can tell you about it.
For those resident within Rivers state and its environs, please report any case of child abuse, rape, sexual assault, neglect or domestic violence to: The Government of Rivers State, The ministry of social welfare and rehabilitation. The mandate of the ministry is to provide social services to families, juvenile, children, orphans, the physically and indigent poor.