By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The shocking revelation in a study survey primarily conducted among parents and caregivers, teachers, and primary school age children is that child maltreatment in Tonga is a problem of great concern.
Maltreatment, meaning cruel or violent treatment of a person, involves children as subjects of this study. The study confirms that children in Tonga are exposed to violence; and there are those who are abused; and children who are also in neglect.
A report based on the survey was recently discussed in a talanoa gathering in Nuku’alofa. The session was co-ordinated by children’s welfare advocates, ‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki of the Women and Children Crisis Center (WCCC), and regionally known pediatrician, Dr. Siaosi ‘Aho of Vaiola Hospital.
According to Dr. ‘Aho, the impact of maltreatment in children results in mental health issues, fear, isolation, shame, stigma; and there are those who have been physically injured and died, as well as those developing strong suicidal tendencies as a result of abuse.
Both Likiliki and ‘Aho were part of the research team that included 6 other experts from Tonga and the region, conducting a survey among three primary schools in the Kolomotu’a township of Nuku’alofa. They also analyzed and reported their findings and published in the Children and Youth Services Review Journal.
Talking mostly to teachers and caregivers of the primary school age children from Kolomotu’a GPS, Hala’ovave, and ACTS Community School, the surveyors concluded, based on their findings, that maltreatment of children at different levels is a real problem in Tonga.
There were 143 caregivers and 20 teachers, as well as the children, who were involved in the survey. They were given opportunities to respond to the items on parenting and child maltreatment.
The vast majority of caregivers and teachers interviewed agreed that abuse of children is a problem in Tonga; and that children are also exposed to violence in the homes, schools, churches and the community.
Child neglect can be deadly
But there is also the issue of child neglect that 79% of caregivers and 70% of teachers believe that it is a problem in Tonga. Neglect can mean the failure to provide the necessities of life for a child.
Neglect may also be applied in the case where a child who may suffer from sickness is not taken to hospital for treatment but only given Tongan traditional medicine.
The child may continue to be seriously ill but instead of getting him/her to a doctor, the parent or caregiver continues to insist stubbornly that Tongan medicine will eventually bring healing.
“It is often difficult to change the mentality of the parents to seek for medical assistance from a medical doctor first before the use of traditional medicine,” Dr. ‘Aho says.
There have been cases that result in death, but then the parents or caregivers turn religious and view the death as “the will of God”.
Dr. ‘Aho says that “For adults, it is their choice; but for children the neglect is the choice of parent or caregivers.” The problem could have been fixed but it was too late because of neglect. “The question,” says the doctor, “is it a responsible act to substitute traditional medicine for professional care by a medical doctor?”
In reference to the study report, Dr. ‘Aho says “There is now very strong scientific evidence that our children have had significant maltreatment in the guise of child discipline.”
Corporal punishment, illegal but still practiced
Even though there are laws in Tonga against corporal punishment, teachers at schools still use physical punishment on students . And most parents support this. Child discipline is largely physical in nature, and 75% of caregivers surveyed in Tonga reported using physical punishment as a form of discipline and this was justified as an appropriate method.
‘Ofa Likiliki says: “We cannot afford to be complacent… In 2001 a 15 year old male and 16 year old male died as a result of physical punishment received from their own family members. In 2002, we lost a 15 year old to internal hemorrhaging as a result of physical beatings by family members. In 2015 a 4 year old by lost his life as a result of severe physical punishment from a family member. In 2014, we lost a 14 year old girl to septicemic organ failure from multiple infected sharp and blunt injuries as a result of family beatings from her family members.”
She also says that WCCC has had ongoing reports from concerned parents over the last decade of children receiving harsh physical punishment from teachers.
Unfortunately many children do not tell their parents about physical punishment at school for fear parents will further punish them for misbehaving at school. There are however children who suffer mental turmoil from corporal punishment and take it out on themselves through depression or other mental illness behavior.
“There have also been reports from health practitioners,” she says, “of children being neglected or reports from teachers that children are being kept at home from school to carry out duties at home or to babysit younger children.”
Likiliki says, “There is a need for change at government, legislative, systems and community levels. Those of the frontline doing the work strongly advocate for a Child Protection Act..”
“This is imperative in order to decrease the prevalence of violent discipline methods and to protect children from the risks of violence,” she says.
“Caregivers and teachers,” says the report from the study survey, “mentioned the hidden nature of the problem, the importance of caring for children, and the need to enforce law around these issues.”
Dr. ‘Aho offers hope: “It is time to change. Our children, both now and in generations to come deserves so much better. Together we can make this a reality.”