While it is certain that children have been the victims of sexual and physical abuse for millennia, it is only recently in the modern era that laws and norms specifically prohibiting such behavior have been enacted.
Throughout most of history, children were considered to be the property of their parents and child abuse cases did not exist. Children were awarded very few rights and could be legally abused at will by their parents. In Ancient Rome, as well as many other ancient cultures, a father could legally kill their children.
Today, modern societies have outlawed such practices. Experts divide child abuse cases into four categories: physical, sexual, psychological and neglect.
An Evolution of Compassion in Society
In the United States, the modernization of laws to protect children from abuse began in 1874. After a young girl was found badly abused by her parents in a New York slum in one of the worst child abuse cases ever reported, and a neighbor found that there was no one to turn to for help, a group of activists came together to found an organization to help abused children.
Modeled after the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals that he founded six years earlier, Henry Bergh founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children after meeting with Etta Wheeler, a religious missionary. Wheeler had discovered the abused girl in the New York slum and supported her as she fought to gain help from the authorities, culminating in a court trial that became a media sensation.
In the next 20 years alone, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children investigated more than 100,000 suspected child abuse cases. In a grim tale of horror, they discovered thousands of cases where children had been beaten, starved, frozen, drowned, knifed, bitten, burned and smashed into floors and walls. They also found cruel stories of children being forcefed vinegar, alcohol, urine and other noxious substances.
Nonetheless, the child abuse cases were far more numerous than the investigators initially discovered. It was only in 1945, after the development of X-ray technology, that doctors began noticing unusual bone injuries in children. In 1962, a landmark paper by Henry Kempe in the Journal of the American Medical Association outlined the definition of ‘battered children syndrome’, defined as the chronic physical abuse of a child.
According to the Tennyson Center for Children, child abuse cases are reported in America every 10 seconds today. Five children die every day in the United States as a result of child abuse. Furthermore, it is reported that about 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children.
Child Abuse Cases and the Law
Most modern societies currently have laws that strictly prohibit the sexual or physical abuse of a child. Therapists, social workers and family support nurses currently work with thousands of child abuse cases per year. A wide range of law enforcement agents are currently working to identify and apprehend people who abuse children and prevent future child abuse cases.
The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty that protects children’s rights signed in 1989. Articles 34 and 35 of the convention specifically protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. As of December 2014, 195 countries have ratified the Convention. Every modern, western country has ratified the Convention except for the United States.
The United States has aggressive laws in place to protect children from all forms of abuse. Most forms of abuse of children are violations of federal law, which means they are uniformly mandated throughout all 50 states and American territories. The United States is unique, however, in that it allows religious exemptions to some of the laws on child neglect.
In India, a 2012 law named the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences took effect, protecting children from primarily sexual forms of abuse.
In South Africa, a 2007 amendment to the country’s criminal law banned a number of sexual offenses against children, including grooming children for sexual contact, displaying pornography to children and forcing children to witness sexual acts.
In Britain, a 2003 update to the Sexual Offences Act criminalized a number of forms of abuse against children.
In the European Union, the Convention of the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse is in effect for all of its 28 member nations.
In Africa, a Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is the first step towards protecting children in the continent not just from physical and sexual abuse, but also from being forced to serve in the military.
The Minimum Age Convention, adopted by the United Nations in 1973, seeks to limit the abuse of children by the complete abolition of juvenile labor. Various exemptions still exist that permit young children to work on farms or as performers in the entertainment industry.
The existence of infanticide throughout time, is very much linked to the topic of child abuse. And again while society was and is opposed to infanticide and demanded that these monstrous mothers be prosecuted, there was not much done to create parental bonds.
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