Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Waking up to the horror of violence against innocents

A powerful man of some status and good reputation commits assault – grabbing his victim roughly around the throat after an argument. The deed is caught on camera and he is arrested for assault.

In another case, a violent domestic abuser walks free from court with a suspended sentence after using a hot iron to assault a vulnerable, helpless victim.

Are these two more examples of the everyday violence against women that permeates our society? No. Not this time.

The assailant in the first case was a police sergeant who lost his temper with a 14-year-old boy, picked him up by the throat and dragged him into a cell. He was given a conditional discharge. The offender in the second case was a mother, who walked free from court in spite of having a previous caution for assaulting her nine-year-old son so severely he needed three stitches in his head. I do not write to call for draconian custodial sentences upon any of the offenders here.

However, it does concern me how little attention such cases generate, both in mainstream media and social media.

You may have missed it, but a murder trial is currently running against the mother and stepfather of four-year-old Daniel Petka. The horrific details are generating scant attention in the media.

Our society has to a certain extent awoken to the horror of violence against women and sexual abuse. While, of course, the vast majority of cases of sexual and domestic violence never trouble newsdesks, there are always campaigning efforts, or high-profile cases (such as Peter Connelly – 'Baby P') keeping awareness of the issues alive.

There are extensive efforts to provide teaching time and resources for educating on violence against women and girls, no equivalent focus on violence against children.

Our attitudes towards violence against children lag roughly 40 years behind our attitudes on violence against women. Adults are legally permitted to use 'reasonable' physical violence as a punishment for disobedience, just as husbands once were to wives.

Most violence against children occurs behind closed doors and, providing it doesn't cross a line into abject horror, is considered to be a private affair – in the same way as domestic violence was once written off as 'just a domestic.'

Research on the true extent of abuse of children is fraught with difficulties, but most of it suggests that children's risks of facing serious maltreatment in the home are at least comparable to those faced by adult women.

According to recent statistics, children aged 10-15 are more than twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime as an adult male and four times as likely as an adult woman.

There is also good news. A 2011 study by the NSPCC found that the prevalence of physical violence reported had declined from 13.1% to 9.8% in the previous 10 years.

Progress is possible and much has already been made. If we wish to free our society from the scourge of violence and abuse in all forms, the time has come for our culture and our politicians to send a clear message: inflicting violence on children can never be justified.

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