Caught in the crossfire

Andy Hunte is dead at two months old. He died on Tuesday night as a result of being caught in the crossfire of physical abuse being meted out by one of his parents to the other. According to a report carried in this newspaper, Andy Hunte was presented at the Georgetown Public Hospital with lacerations to his body and a gaping wound to the head. He was unconscious and subsequently succumbed. Andy Hunte’s short miserable life is an extreme example of the effect violence between adults—especially in home—has on children. In this case Andy Hunte lost his life; often, children lose their childhood.

While there are systems in place to deal with the abuse of children and while violence against women is slowly being addressed, the plight of children caught in the crossfire, who may not be actually physically harmed, has mostly been ignored despite the fact that it is well known that they can be mentally and emotionally affected by what they see and hear.

The Margaret Clemons Foundation’s Witness Project, which is closely aligned with the international project Inside Out by French artist/photographer JR, used his motto, “what we see changes who we are”, in its massive roll out at the end of January this year of huge photo/posters around Georgetown. The posters of eyes and faces taken by 15 children who have been involved with the project since last year, sought to use art to get the message out there that children are seeing and experiencing violence and that it changes them. This aspect of the project was successfully executed—hundreds of posters were pasted up around the city—and it started conversations. But where do we as a society go from here? Children who are witnessing violence need more.

A Swedish study published last month found that children who experience or witness physical abuse are likely to experience psychosomatic symptoms. Common symptoms were headache, stomachache and sleeplessness among children who were exposed to intimate partner violence at home. In other words, children were found to be manifesting with signs of physical illness because of the stress they were experiencing by watching their parents row and fight.

What is worse, experts say, is that because they internalize a lot of what they witness, adults don’t really realize right away just how much the children are affected. Some of what is pent up is often acted out in children’s behaviour and unfortunately, even then, adults do not recognize it for what it is and rather than explore what could be causing the bad behaviours, choose to simply punish the child/children.

“Early exposure to a violent environment can undermine children’s faith in adults and the social order and can also impede children’s development. Those growing up amid violence display poor academic performance and higher school dropout rates, as well as anxiety, depression, aggression and problems with self-control,” UNICEF says in its annual report – ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012’.

Children who were counselled after they witnessed spousal abuse in the home expressed that they felt guilty, sad, depressed and responsible for the abuse; angry at the abusive parent for hurting the other, or angry at the victim because they feel the abuse is that parent’s fault; powerless and helpless because they feel a need to help stop the abuse even though it is beyond their control and confused when their parents try to get them to choose sides.

Given what we know about the prevalence of violence against women in this country, particularly in the home, we have to be aware that there are thousands of children who are affected but who have no recourse to talking about their feelings. A way has to be found to reach these children and not just through counselling their parents. If parents keep raising children who are confused about the relationship between violence and love, then the horrific cycle will never end.

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