The World’s Millstone: Child Abuse

Special report looks into prevalence of child abuse, particularly in Latin America

  • Special Reports // Hardship and Hope
  • Beebe Purisaca, Co-International Director, Peace and Hope International // December 30, 2010

A Paz y Esperanza psychologist meeting with a girl that has suffered from abuse. Part of the recovery process is to encourage victims to share their story and take actions toward justice. © Photo courtesy of Paz y Esperanza 2010

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ warning to people who mistreat children – it would be better for them to drown in the depths of the sea. Unfortunately, the world at large does not heed this warning. Child abuse is prevalent throughout the world.. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 275 million children around the world suffer violence in their homes every year, and approximately 40 million children under 15 suffer violence, abuse and neglect. In the USA in 2009, approximately 1.5 million children were victims of abuse and neglect, and 1,770 children died from the abuse.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines child abuse as: neglect, physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, or sexual abuse, or a combination of these forms of abuse. Youngest children are usually the most vulnerable to abuse; and parents and family members, the very people whom God entrusted to protect children, are the most frequent perpetrators of abuse. --- Child Abuse in Latin America Studies suggest that Latin America and the Caribbean have some of the highest rates of violence against women and children in the world—manifesting itself in physical punishment, sexual abuse, neglect and economic exploitation (a form of human trafficking). Further, much child abuse is unreported and more widespread than it appears in the region. Child abuse in Latin America and elsewhere cuts across social classes, race, ethnicities and gender. Statistics for Peru are even more staggering regarding violence against women and children where three rapes per day occur and almost 350 children per day are abused, according to independent studies by rights groups. The World Health Organization considers Peru to be one of the most dangerous places for women in the world—40% of whom report they have been raped. In a country of 28 million people, between 1995 and 1999, experts estimate that more than 200,000 children were victims of mistreatment or physical abuse; and that at least 60% of abuse cases were unreported. Thirty-seven percent of the children manifested severe psychological problems resulting from the abuse while 23% were victims of sexual abuse – both boys and girls between the ages of 5-7 and 12-16 years. Family members perpetrated the abuse in the majority of cases. Unfortunately, violence is not new to Peru, and the high rates of sexual and other violence may be attributable in large part to the years of internal conflict between 1980 and 2000 during which rape was often used as a political tool and many families, who lost their economic base of support, dealt with stress through the use of violence. Women and children in the Church are not safe from abuse. In surveys carried out in Peru by Paz y Esperanza, a human rights group that works in Peru, it was found that 1 out of 10 victims of domestic violence in Huánuco were Evangelical-Protestant (only 15% of the population is Evangelical-Protestant); and 2 out of every 10 youth leaders admitted to having been victims of sexual abuse. --- Seeking Justice and Transformation Despite these tragic statistics, there is hope in the midst of such suffering and injustice. As Christians, we are called to stand up for justice and stand alongside the abused. Paz y Esperanza [Peace and Hope], which operates in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, is one organization that is championing this call to do justice and encouraging people in the church and society at large to do the same. The organization provides holistic services to victims of abuse and promotes transformational systemic change within communities. "Child abuse destroys the physical, mental, and spiritual fabric of individuals, families and communities," said Alfonso Wieland, Co-International Director of PHI and founder of Paz y Esperanza in Peru. "The church must seek justice and restoration in these situations. God calls us to get involved and fight injustice wherever it is found." The story of Tania, 16, who recently came to Paz y Esperanza for help, reflects God's transformative love and justice expressed through such a transformative approach as it took place in Huánuco, Peru: When “Tania” first came to Paz y Esperanza she was distrustful of the staff and ashamed of her situation. Sixteen years old and five-months pregnant, Tania had been repeatedly raped by a neighbor near her home in a rural area. After the first attack Tania and her mother reported the incident to the authorities, but no action was taken. A Paz y Esperanza staff psychologist slowly gained Tania’s trust through months of therapy and accompanied Tania throughout her pregnancy and birth to a baby boy in December 2009. Tania no longer feels alone, which has given her courage to seek justice for her abuse. Her legal case is pending and was recently referred for a trial date. Tania participated in the Tamar Teen Camp, a group-therapy retreat for girls victimized by sexual violence. After attending, Tania's family has noticed that she is becoming more like the teenager she was prior to the rapes. God’s vision of a world without mistreatment of children is at the core of the Bible: Jesus orders us to protect them (Gen. 48:5; Ex. 2:10; Ex. 22:22-23; see also Book of Esther), give them an identity and place (Gen. 4:25; Lev. 12:3), educate them (Prov. 22:6), cherish them (Mark 10:14-16), and even be like them (Matt. 18:1-4). How can Christians participate actively in this vision? There are many things that we can do individually and corporately to advance God’s justice for children, as expressed by experts in the human rights field. On a personal level, we can: • Teach by example. Confront our own abusive behaviors and attitudes and seek help to change. • Seek help if you have been abused. • Pray for victims and abusers. • Avoid gossiping about suspected abuse. • Get involved with organizations or groups in the community that work on the issue. • Do not advise abused persons to return to a situation of abuse. • Report suspected abuse in a wise manner that protects everyone involved. On a corporate level we can: • Ensure that sound church policies and practices to protect children are in place and followed in programs that work with children. • Help parents to be better parents through education and support. • Educate our congregations and circles of influence about the issue. Teach about the issue in Sunday school, youth groups, and adult education classes. Hold a public forum or movie discussion night on the issue. Invite an expert to speak about the issue. • Talk about the issue from the pulpit. • Offer a safe place where persons who have suffered abuse may report and receive or be referred to services to heal from the abuse. • Train people in your congregation on how to respond to situations of abuse in a healthy way that provides safety to the victim. • Make educational and resource materials available in the church library or displays. • Get involved with organizations or groups in the community that work on the issue. • Support and promote laws and funding that protect children. As Isaiah reminds us in chapter 58, we can have healing and light, for everyone, if we dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to pursuing justice on behalf of those who are oppressed. In the words of Isaiah, those that stand up will be called “Repairers of Broken Walls.” --- For more information about the work of Paz y Esperanza and how you can support it and/or get involved in the USA or in Latin America, contact Colleen Beebe Purisaca at (612) 825-6864, ext. 564 or cbeebepurisaca@pazyesperanza.org.