Australia must do more to help children in the Pacific
By Claire Rogers, World Vision Australia CEO. An edited version published by the Herald Sun on August 7, 2019
Children’s drawings often evoke a sense of joy and mirth – whether it’s a wonky stick-figure family with a spotty dog, or holiday fun under an oversized sun.
But this week, a crudely-drawn sketch by a young boy filled me with sadness.
The window into his life depicts his father looming menacingly over his mother with a knife, poised to strike as she cowers in fright.
Dwarfed by his parents, the terrified tiny boy grabs for his mum’s skirt, in an apparent attempt to duck for cover.
But his explanation reveals an even more heartbreaking story. Just 12, he already sees himself as his mum’s protector.
“My father gets angry with my mum,” the child wrote.
“He beats her and I feel sorry for my mum and I go to her so my dad does not beat her. Where can you go when you see this happening? There is no other place to go.”
Life can be hell on earth for this child in Vanuatu, a place Australians typically associate with images of paradise. Chances are he’s been hit too – and he’s not alone.
The picture appears in a report released today revealing harrowing levels of physical, emotional and sexual violence and neglect children in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.
The problem has reached epidemic levels in the region, with new research revealing more than 70 per cent - or 4 million children - across eight countries are subjected to violent discipline at home.
The report, produced by World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International and ChildFund, also found a staggering 27 per cent of parents or carers in PNG have reported beating their children “over and over as hard as they could”.
These children live on Australia’s doorstep – some just a 1.5 hour flight from Darwin – and are being subjected to some of the world’s worst levels of abuse.
And for the most part, our country has turned a blind eye.
But imagine the outcry if millions of Australian children were being regularly beaten in their own homes?
Imagine if scores of kids as young as six were feeling scared and lonely, instead of loved and secure?
Imagine if one in three Aussie parents were savagely striking their young, for something as simple as asking for pocket money?
It doesn’t take much to imagine the terror in their eyes; the tears running down their cheeks; the hardened resolve of those hit one too many times.
Like the 12-year-old boy, their exposure to violence at home is subconsciously moulding them to be the next generations of abusers.
Even children who simply witness their mothers or caregivers being targeted are more likely to harm women and children later in life.
These are a lost generation of children, unseen and unsafe – and Australia can no longer afford to ignore those who are the future leaders of their countries.
The human costs of violence are dire and can leave children with lifelong physical and psychological scars including mental trauma, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and even death.
Physically, children are vulnerable to serious injury as their bodies are still developing. Violence can lead to stunted brain development which affects their concentration, language development and ability to read and write.
The drivers of abuse are complex, but chief among them are gender inequality, social acceptance of physical punishment against children, the low status of children and growing poverty and inequality – all major issues in the Pacific region.
For many of these parents, it has been culturally hard-wired into their behaviour over generations.
As one informant told the Vanuatu Government: “The word ‘right’ does not exist in our culture, we only have the right of the chiefs, or men, but others don’t have rights.”
But that doesn’t mean the script can’t be changed.
Take the case of Marcelino, a father-of-two from Timor-Leste.
He openly admits that he used to beat his wife Domingas and their two daughters, Delia and Abrial, saying he had “no idea” that children should be afforded their own rights and protection.
He’d punch the girls when they asked for money, bashed them when they set a foot wrong, and refused to help with chores around the house.
“In the past my children would just walk away when we talked to them perhaps because of the way we treated them,” he says.
But he dramatically turned around his behaviour after attending a gender program run by World Vision, which helps reduce violence against children and partners, and educates parents about gender equality and healthy relationships.
“After the training I no longer beat my child but rather talk to them in a nicer manner,” he said.
“I also notice changed in my children that they will listen to things that their parents are saying to them if we are not applying violence.”
Not only that, but he says he now understands the need to break down gender stereotypes, including sharing the household duties, for a happy and healthy home. And he and his wife are now taking their message to their community in the hope of effecting wider change.
We know Australia has its own problems with violence against women and children, and it’s an issue that permeates so many societies. But Pacific countries like Timor Leste experience significantly higher rates and it’s crucial we show leadership.
As the report states, we have a simple choice – if we want future generations of children to grow and prosper, a determined and meaningful investment in their wellbeing and safety is critical.
The Australian Government has committed to the Pacific step-up, but there’s a gaping hole in our neighbourly relations - insufficient levels of funding and policy measures to address the epidemic of abuse and protect children.
In 2017, only $1.1 million or 0.1 percent of all foreign aid to the Pacific and Timor-Leste in 2017 was channelled to programs specifically addressing violence against children. To put this in context, we dedicated $200 million for infrastructure.
World Vision believes the government must boost funding to end violence against children in our region to at least $60 million, to drastically change these children’s lives.
It’s time for Australia to be a better neighbour, and help protect the millions of children in the region living in fear. Because no matter where they live, every child deserves to feel safe at home.
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