DAY 2: HOW TO: respond to child abuse

How can you practically empower yourself, or the women and children you know, during this year’s 16 days of Activism? The Mail & Guardian‘s “HOW TO” guide will tackle a different area each day, including suing for maintenance, applying for a social grant and getting an interdict against an abusive partner.

We’ve all heard the sounds of a child screaming. But what do you do if you seriously suspected that your neighbour or relative’s child was being abused—or your child’s friend for that matter?

Child abuse is the mistreatment of a child by a person and can be physical, emotional, sexual or neglect—the most common.
Sexual and physical abuse is generally the most shocking but emotional abuse can be more difficult to spot.

Signs of abuse

It’s tricky to know when to react and when the stay out of the situation. Cyber Parent advises that one sign, seen once or twice, does not necessarily mean anything. Keep watching before you jump to conclusions but once you are reasonably sure, be sure to take action. A culture of silence and “staying out of it” in South Africa means that too many children suffer in alone—often fatally.

Physical Abuse:

  • Sores, burns, bruises on body
  • A reluctance or vagueness about where these originated
  • Bruises and burns are the most persistent physical symptoms.


  • Soiled diapers, dirty hair, unwashed clothes, body odor.
  • Sometimes weight loss and lackluster skin and/or hair can indicate neglect, particularly in a proper or sufficient diet.

Emotional or Mental Abuse

This is harder to tell. Abused children often become quiet but that is not always a way to a sign. Lack of self-esteem is another way to tell but again, that does not mean children are abused.

Sexual Abuse

  • Precocious behavior
  • sexual knowledge, through language or behavior, that is beyond what is normal for their age; copying adult sexual behavior
  • inappropriate sexual behavior such as kissing on the mouth and/or attempting to insert tongue in your mouth
  • soreness, redness, chaffing around genitals
  • habitual sleeping with parent of opposite sex in pre-teen or older
  • reluctance or outright refusal to let you wash or dry private parts of the body
  • persistent sexual play with other children, themselves, toys or pets

    Remember that inappropriate touching is also sexual abuse. This is not uncommon, particularly when alcohol or drugs are involved.

    How to respond to child abuse
  • Under no circumstance should you diffuse the situation, for example by yelling at the suspected abuser.
  • If you are in the situation, try talking to the child. Soothe the child and make him/her feel comfortable, and simultaneously calm the parent.
  • Get the identification of the suspected abuser. If the incident occurs at a public place like a mall, try and get the license plate numbers of the suspect
  • Report your suspicions. The main port of call is Childline on: 0800 055 555
  • Contact a social worker in your area, using this list. Provide the following information:
    • who the child is
    • particulars of the biological parents or care givers
    • address where the child currently lives and, if away from the parents, the address of the parents
    • dates and types of incidents
    • history of previous incidents
    • contact details of other persons who could confirm alleged abuse

  • Involve others. If you get no satisfaction from the official channels, try involving members of the community and the child’s school teacher.

  • Befriend the child.

  • Help the family. See if there is anything that you can do to help reduce tension in the family.

    Your responsibility?

    Remember that according to Section 42 of the Child Care Act, 1983, the following professionals are obliged to report any suspicions of child abuse or ill treatment:

    • dentist
    • medical practitioner
    • nurse
    • social worker
    • teacher
    • any person employed by or managing a children’s home or a place of care or shelter
    • any ordinary member of society who suspects that a child is being abused or maltreated is also obliged to report his or her suspicions.


    • Childline: 0800 055 555
    • A social worker.
    • If you’re Cape Town-based, Rapcan.
    • NGO for the convention on the rights of the child
    • The police on Crime Stop number 08600 10111

      View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.

  • Read the daily “HOW TO” guides so far here

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