opinion

'Parenting is tough but I have help. So many parents don't and it's the kids who suffer.'

Parenting is hard work.

This is something we hear our mum and dad friends say all the time. I’m sure it is the toughest job I’ll ever do, and I’ve had some tough gigs in my time!

Being a mum to two independent, clever girls aged six and seven, I’m always trying to stay ahead of the game – which I fear rarely happens!

Everyday I’m trying to get them ready for school on time, juggling after school activities and racing home to make dinner and deal with the various tantrums that come my way.

Parenting is tough but at least I have the resources and tools to deal with this task.

I’m lucky, and so are most of my friends. We have homes, steady incomes, supportive family structures, access to parenting courses, and a fantastic local school system. But what happens when these structures and systems aren’t in place?

What happens when you combine poverty and economic insecurity with high levels of gender inequality and entrenched norms around the use of physical discipline in the home?

These questions, and more, are unpacked in a new report that reveals huge and deeply disturbing levels of violence against children in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

Researched and produced by some of Australia’s leading aid organisations, Save the Children, ChildFund, Plan International and World Vision, the report shows that over 4 million children across eight countries experience violent discipline at home, including a staggering 2.8 million (75 per cent of the child population) in Papua New Guinea and over 600,000 children in Timor-Leste (at least 87 per cent of the child population).

Save the children
One in four adolescent girls experience physical violence. Image: Supplied

In Papua New Guinea, 27 per cent of surveyed parents or carers reported beating their children “over and over as hard as they could”.

The report also shines a light on the entrenched causes behind these endemic levels of violence. This includes the unrelenting pressure faced by poverty-stricken parents to provide for their children by participating in the ‘cash economy’, which often results in children being neglected while their parents work long hours across multiple jobs.

Tragically, these children then become far more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The report also investigates the link between the high levels of gender inequality in many Pacific countries with alarming rates of domestic and family violence, in which mothers and children are often subjected to shocking abuse without the safety net or support services needed to help them escape these violent homes.

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With a problem this big – and with such entrenched and generational causes – a solution can seem out of reach. How can we reverse the tide of violence against children in this region when it is so ingrained in everyday life? How can we provide support to parents to help them better understand the impact of their actions? How do we empower children to seek support when they are unsafe, and to encourage communities to call out violence?

The good news is we are not starting from scratch. There are already a range of proven programs running across many parts of the Pacific, helping teach parents about the impact violence has on children and the effectiveness of various positive parenting programs, carrying out community level advocacy and providing support for children.

Save The Children
“In the past, when my children played around, I showed anger toward them. However, after the training, when they fight each other, I counsel them to stop”. Image: Supplied

National governments, NGOs, churches and community organisations are all working tirelessly to support parents, especially during times of frustration, hardship and stress. They are helping establish referral and response networks in communities, so those fleeing violence have a safe place to go and their experiences can be heard and addressed. And they are working with children to increase their resilience and to encourage them to build healthy, respectful relationships within families.

And it is working.

Our frontline workers in the Pacific have shared story after story of transformation experienced by individuals, families and communities.

Domingas, a mother in Timor-Leste, told researchers, “In the past, when my children played around, I showed anger toward them. However, after the training, when they fight each other, I counsel them to stop.”

With greater investment in programs that address the root causes of domestic violence, we can fast-track progress and secure better life outcomes for the future generation of our closest international neighbours.

However, ending this scourge is not the responsibility of just one government, organisation or group.

We all must work together to protect children from harm.

Kavitha Suthanthiraraj is the Acting Head of Policy at Save the Children Australia and author of ’Unseen and Unsafe: Underinvestment in Ending Violence Against Children in the Pacific and Timor-Leste’.

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