Child abuse and our crumbling social norms

The writer says there is a bias against the poor that leads to a general acceptance of violence against them.

Mahfuz Anam

Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star



February 13, 2023

DHAKA – The underlying issue is of “entitlement.” Be it due to money, feudal legacy or political power (the last being far more effective than others), some people feel entitled to do anything – insult, humiliate and publicly abuse others, as if the more vulgarity on display, the more it is a testimony of their power. Nothing depicts the vulgarity of this discrimination more dramatically and painfully than the way we treat the children of the poor.

A municipal mayor in Narayanganj’s Araihazar upazila, on February 6, allegedly tortured, beat, tied hands of, and paraded three kids (aged 7, 9, and 11) along a two-kilometre route, for – what the mayor claimed – “trying to steal” some rusted parts of some old machines from an abandoned factory.

The machines were lying in the open before being shifted to another site. Two of the kids were playing and picked up some pieces, maybe to play with them. The mayor saw this from a distance, which triggered his violent rage and the consequent beating and torturing. Then he summoned the third child from his home and continued torturing them together. It was not a sudden and uncontrolled outburst that subsided soon after. No, it was his way of showing his power, his anger, and it continued for more than two hours while the kids were paraded through the local bazaar. During the period, the children’s parents and families begged and pleaded with him and sought his forgiveness, which came after these kids were publicly humiliated with the final act of having their heads nearly shaved so that, for weeks, they would be mocked, continuously verbally abused and stand out to be pointed at as thieves.

First, it is an issue of class and stature. We are quite certain that the mayor would not have dared harm a trio of 7-, 9- and 11-year-olds if they belonged to the people of the same stature, wealth or political power.

Second, it is also that of power. He felt certain that these kids’ parents and families would not dare go to the police – who are likely to be under his influence anyway – and did not have any powerful “connections” that would hold him to account.

That left the media. We commend the local journalists for rising to the occasion and reporting this violence against the three children who are, we repeat, aged 7, 9, and 11.

The physical and psychological impacts of what the mayor did to these kids cannot be fully fathomed now or even in the near future. The beating, the torture, the hand-tying, and the parading through the locality are likely to leave a lifelong scar on their psyche, far deeper and long-lasting than the beatings they got. The humiliation in front of their parents, families and playmates may leave such a deep sense of shame that they may never ever have a healthy sense of self-respect. Such traumas are known to permanently damage a child’s sense of dignity. Obviously, the mayor in question is far removed from the world of respect and dignity to understand, far less appreciate, what we are talking about.

I wonder by whom or how this mayor will be held accountable. Because of the publicity, he is now hiding, waiting for it to blow over and the media to lose interest.

Is there any structure or mechanism that will generate an inquiry, collect evidence from the locals and hold the mayor accountable? Is there any authority to whom the concerned parents could go to seek justice? As I realised that there are none, I shuddered at the thought of how the poor and the powerless live with a constant sense of servility, as victims of the arbitrary exercise of power, legal harassment by the police and the physical threat of violence by local hooligans. The scene becomes nightmarish if we think of the women and children.

Theoretically, laws are to protect the powerless. But our legal system is so complex, layered, cumbersome, and expensive that the poor would rather submit than contest.

As for politics coming to the aid of the downtrodden, the masses are only good for votes once every five years. For the rest of the time, money and muscle speak far louder than the voices of voters.

We have run many reports of powerful individuals beating up kids and torturing them on grounds of suspicion of theft. Sadly, there is a bias against the poor that leads to a general acceptance of violence against them. The logic, however perverted, generally is that when something is missing – money or something else – and if there is a child around, and if that child happens to come from a poor family, then he must be a thief. Beat and torture him, and he will confess, however tenuous its basis may be. Can there be any doubt that the child will “confess”? What else can he or she do?

Three incidents in the last few days tell us how easily and almost casually we torture, physically punish and psychologically devastate children.

In Chattogram, three police officials were withdrawn – what a punishment? – from their post for torturing two children on suspicion of theft. The police officials tied them to a tree and beat them severely for hours. In Jashore, an irate cook threw boiling oil on a 10-year-old child as he dashed against him while coming out of the restaurant. In Feni, police recovered madrasa students who were kept in chains and beaten as part of discipline for any misconduct.

According to a survey conducted by Unicef in 2019, nine in 10 children are subjected to violent discipline or aggression regularly from their caregivers, including parents and teachers. It concludes, “No matter what form of violence a child is exposed to, the experience may lead to serious and lifelong consequences… Evidence also suggests that toxic stress associated with violence in early childhood can permanently impair brain development and damage other parts of the nervous system.”

Then there is the finding, in 2022, of the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) that 56 percent of street children in the country are addicted to different kinds of drugs, and 21 percent of them are used as carriers. Of them, 14 percent said that they had been using drugs since they were 10 years old. The DNC study further found that 64 percent children of those surveyed did not know how to take care of themselves, and using their vulnerability drug traffickers sell drugs to them and use them as carriers. There is no reliable count of street children in Dhaka or the country. But researchers feel that it would be above a million. Take 56 percent of a million street children, and we get an idea of the scope of the problem.

In addition, there are countless cases of child abduction, imprisonment without legal recourse and sexual exploitation that occur in our society. I have not even referred to the gender-based abuse that a girl child is subjected to, including by extended families. The fundamental injustice and discrimination that is involved in child marriage is better left unsaid.

A lot of lip service is paid for the rights of our children. As a country, we eagerly sign up to all international documents that enshrine all the best values. We were among the first to sign up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 and have, no doubt, proclaimed most loudly all our pious intentions in all international fora that we love to attend.

The question is: what have we really done about protecting our children, ensuring a modicum of healthy environment for their growth, and ensuring that they have the minimum of basic rights that they are entitled to as a citizen of a country that never tires of talking about its Liberation War values? Time has come to truthfully answer this question.

As we wrote at the outset, the main issue is of entitlement – the rich and the politically powerful are “entitled” and the poor and the powerless are not. This discrimination lies at the core of the divided society that we are producing. It is also the reason for our general neglect of the children of the poor. Unless we can bring about a fundamental change in how we take care of our future generation, the future of the country – regardless of the myriad graduations we go through – we will not be assured.

Please don’t set it aside as a child rights advocacy piece. It is, in fact, aimed at constructing a humane society and us becoming better humans.

(As this piece went to print, the guardians of one of the children had filed a case against the mayor in question with Araihazar police station.)

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.

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