updated 11 Jan 2011, 11:27
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Fri, Nov 12, 2010
China Daily/ANN
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Innocence lost
by Wu Chen and Chen Chuanlin

A pilot project to combat violence against children in Shaanxi province is prying open doors and lifting the veil on abuse - mental, physical and sexual. Wu Chen and Chen Chuanlin from China Features report.

Almost three years after being rescued, Le Le (not his real name) still looks scared and confused. The 11-year-old's scars on his forehead speak volumes of his stepmother's abuse and father's neglect.

Le Le, however, is hesitant to talk.

"He was hurt by those closest to him. It now takes him time to establish trust with others," says Jiao Wenyan, a psychiatrist from the Shaanxi Provincial People's Hospital.

"He didn't say a single word during his first therapy session at the Shaanxi Child Abuse Prevention Center in 2007," says Jiao, a volunteer at the center.

In a study done by Chen Jingqi from Peking University and his team, on childhood violence, psychological and sexual abuse, among college and technical secondary school students, 54.7 percent of respondents said they had experienced physical violence before the age of 16.

Completed in 2005, with help from UNICEF China, the study also showed that 60.1 percent experienced psychological abuse, and 25.6 percent reported forced sex.

In 2006, UNICEF China piloted the Combating Violence Against Children project in Shaanxi, Guangdong and Zhejiang.

The five-year program's aim was to establish community-based mechanisms for checking, preventing and responding to violence against children.

According to the United Nations organization, that works to promote children's rights, violence against children includes emotional, mental and sexual abuse, as well as neglect and exploitation.

In collaboration with UNICEF, the Shaanxi Women's Federation has trained students, teachers and parents to detect violence toward children, in addition to setting up hotlines and helping forge a coordinated approach to the rescue and rehabilitation of abuse victims among different government agencies.

Wang Lin (not her real name), 52, remembers how severely her nephew Le Le and his sister used to be beaten by their stepmother. "Le Le, then 8, used to be locked up at home and not allowed to go to school. His sister ran away to live with their biological mother in the city of Hanzhong for more than one year," recalls the shop assistant.

The children's grandmother was reportedly too old to take care of them.

"I felt sorry for the children, but didn't know what to do till I learned of the help hotline in November 2007," Wang says.

After Wang called the hotline, government agencies and social organizations stepped in to begin Le Le's long road to rehabilitation.

He was first treated for scalds, cuts, contusions and dog bites, and then given psychological counseling.

In March 2008, Le Le and his sister were sent to the shelter for homeless children in Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi province. Although this solved their food and housing problems, the shelter could not guarantee them a normal education.

With help from the city women's federation, Wang Lin, their aunt and legal guardian, now receives a monthly subsistence allowance from the local government. She has also found a sponsor who chips in a small amount every month. This has allowed Le Le to be enrolled in Zhangjiazhuang Primary School.

Gou Qi, a teacher, recalls that Le Le had no sense of discipline when he first entered school.

"He screamed and ran around during class, and didn't know how to play with the others. If scolded by the teachers, he would sit down and cry," Gou says.

"I told him gently that if he wanted to forget his unpleasant past and lead a normal life, he would have to behave like his classmates. Gradually he began to understand this," Guo says.

Xing Xin, vice-director of Xi'an's Xincheng district, says that the rehabilitation of child abuse victims calls not just for cooperation among different government agencies but also support from society.

"In Le Le's case, the family, community, hospital, public security bureau, civil affairs department, as well as the women's federation, worked together," Xing says.

Yin Yin New, representative of UNICEF in China, agrees but also points out that it is not easy to ensure such cooperation.

Since 2006, Shaanxi has made a successful effort to help by establishing a mechanism that stipulates the nodal agency responsible for rescue and rehabilitation, based on the experience gained from handling individual cases.

However, Xing says more efforts are needed to ensure its effective implementation.

"Government agencies must put the combating of violence against children on their agenda," she says.

She also notes that the Chinese belief in disciplining children makes it difficult to discover and report cases of physical abuse, especially those occurring behind closed doors.

In the past, many Chinese parents believed in the adage "spare the rod, spoil the child" and subscribed to the view that disciplining children was a private affair that brooked no outside interference.

Indeed, even in Le Le's case, his stepmother said "teaching" her children was her business alone and stormed to Le Le's school and his aunt's pharmacy to express her anger at their interference.

UNICEF's Yin Yin New says not just the Chinese but many societies, especially in Asia, believe in corporal punishment, but the danger with this is not knowing where to draw the line.

"I think there are many other alternatives," New says, and believes education can help change people's attitudes.

After five years of continuous efforts, public awareness about violence against children has improved in China.

Xue Yafang, a 38-year-old Xi'an mother admits that while she knows that it is wrong to beat children, she was not aware that her brand of punishment is also abuse.

"I chose not to talk to my daughter if she didn't listen to me. But now I understand that this can affect her psychologically," she says.

Xue's daughter Tian Qiyu, 11, says her mother used to force her to do things she simply could not do, like dance in public.

But after attending talks held under the UNICEF project, her parents have become more understanding.

"When they treat me with respect, I am more willing to listen to them and take their advice," Tian says.

Feng Yi, vice-chairman of Shaanxi Provincial Women's Federation, says the laws too are beginning to reflect the need to protect children. For example, in May 2009, the Law on the Protection of Minors in Shaanxi, was amended to include three new provisions.

One of them states that if the caregivers lose the capability to look after their wards or, are taken into custody by police, social welfare departments should provide temporary shelter to the minors.

About 60,000 parents, children and social workers have so far benefited from the UNICEF project.

Le Le is showing progress every day. He is a three grader now, and likes school. He has a lot of dreams - studying computer science, flying an airplane, and building a spaceship, but his biggest dream is to be able to live in a family filled with happiness and no violence.

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