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Please note: This article previously carried an image by photographer Adrian Sommeling. We did not know he was the copyright owner until we were informed by his attorney on 17 December 2019. We took immediate steps to verify this information and removed the photograph on 18 December 2019. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
In the last decades the worldwide debate on the domestic violence against women perpetrated by men has slowly started to involve a third subject: children.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in its report Children who witness domestic violence, confirms that many of the cases when a mother is beaten by her partner occur in the presence of her children. As these children emotionally suffer the act of violence against their mother, they might be considered victims too. However, they often remain invisible to both police and social services.
The number of children witnessing domestic violence is statistically underestimated. Such children are rarely referred to social care workers. Parents usually do not realize the trauma which the observed violence may cause to their children, even if it has not been witnessed directly but heard behind a door.
Domestic violence witnessing has been defined by a detailed taxonomy covering ten types of children’s exposure to violence:
It is relevant to underline that children may experience a number of these situations at the same time.
The Parliamentary Assembly states that ‘witnessing violence against a mother is a form of psychological abuse to a child, with potentially severe consequences’. This sentence represents a clear answer to those who claim that ‘the father, after all, would never abuse his child’. Battering, humiliating, verbal violence against the mother is affecting the children for their entire life. The worst risk for children witnesses is becoming part of the violence chain, reproducing the violent model (the father role) or the victim one (the mother role).
Witnessing violence against a mother is a form of psychological abuse to a child, with potentially severe consequences. - Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Children who have experienced such situations may suffer from severe consequences as their feelings and emotions may be as strong as, or stronger than, the reactions and feelings of a physically abused child. Witnessing violence may cause both short and long term psychological, emotional and physical harm to the delicate development of children, affecting areas such as socialization, education and learning.
It is essential to recognize that societies are still not ready to treat children witnesses, basically because there is lack of data about the phenomenon. In 2010, Save the Children conducted a comparative study ‘Children witnesses of gender violence in the domestic context‘ within the European Commission’s Daphne III programme. The research investigated how policies in Spain, Italy and Iceland fight against gender-based violence (GBV) and take care of children whose mothers have been victims of such violence.
The results pointed out that Spain is the best example of GBV law and was viewed as a good model concerning the EU gender equality strategy. As compared to the Spanish and Italian approach, the Icelandic system seems focused on the recovery of parents, in cases when the situation required the expulsion of the father from the domestic context. Children’s needs, however, are not taken into account in this recovery process. Moreover, Icelandic professionals emphasize the difficulty to obtain a non-molestation order by judges which requires evidence and takes a considerable long time to proceed, while the Spanish law can provide urgent measures aimed at protecting the victims.
Italy presents a different case, where the law does not guarantee specific rights to witnesses of violence. It is up to the sensitive interpretation of legal authorities to provide protective measures for children as victims.
Concerning the main difficulties the professionals experience in protecting the rights of children who witnessed their mother’s abuse, Spain and Italy seem quite similar. Besides the challenges they face in taking care of children in small towns, both countries suffer lack of resources (human and financial) and of specific training for professionals.
In general, results from the interviews show that in all of the three countries there is a lack of coordination amongst different services (police, social services, et.), which hinders the complete fulfillment of children rights protection. Safe relationships within the home are the most important premise for a healthy development of children. Fighting gender discrimination, disparity between men and women, and gender based domestic violence is fundamental to guarantee to children a balanced growth, free of any kind of violence.
[Head photo: © Michael Knapek]
Sabrina Allegra is a freelance sociologist and activist for women and girls’ rights based in Italy. She holds a Diploma in Early Childhood, a Bachelor’s in Sociology and Social Research, and a Master’s Degree in Sociology. Sabrina’s main fields of interest include identity, gender equality and minorities rights, in particular those involving Roma people across Europe. Sabrina is the founder of Women Social Inclusion, a nonprofit organisation advocating for the empowerment of all women and girls.