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The Cultural Meanings of Child Abuse

Japanese Chinese

Looking at the title, some readers may be shocked to interpret the title as suggesting there might be some meaning to child abuse, but don't worry, that is not what I mean.

Three years ago, the women's university where I teach began a summer program in English as part of our globalization strategy. Intensive classes are held during summer vacation and conducted in English, with courses offered in the three fields of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The program accepts not only students from our university, but also those from partner universities in Japan and abroad. International students are eligible for scholarships if they meet certain conditions. In both 2013 and 2014, we received applications from over 100 international students, of which about 50 actually enrolled. Most of the students were from Asian countries such as Vietnam, China, South Korea, and Thailand, but students also came from Italy, Germany, Russia, and Turkey.

I am in charge of the overall Summer School Program and also teach courses in the humanities. For the past several years, I have given three classes on the subject of child abuse. About half of the students are foreign students. Unlike Japanese students who tend to be self-effacing and reserved, they raise their hands to ask questions whenever they want clarification, even while I am talking. I find it very stimulating.

In an attempt to make classes interactive, I pose questions to the students in class and have them voice their own views, and in doing this, I have come to realize that there are major differences in how students of various countries view abuse. For example, when I showed a cartoon of a father spanking a child in his arms and asked if that constituted abuse, the students demonstrated different reactions. I already knew of the tendency in Europe and North America to view any kind of corporal punishment as physical abuse regardless of how it was carried out, and as expected, students from Italy and Germany asserted that corporal punishment was definitely abuse. The Asian students, however, had a completely opposite reaction. A male student from Myanmar stated in fluent English that many Burmese people consider corporal punishment to be a part of upbringing and discipline. A female student from Vietnam related something that sounded even more extreme (?): parents in Vietnam will sometimes ask the teacher to carry out corporal punishment if their child misbehaves or fails to follow class rules. A student from Thailand added that students were still sometimes caned with bamboo sticks in Thai schools. The students from Italy and Germany appeared totally shocked by these accounts.

Furthermore, cultural differences became more apparent when I asked questions about child labor. The labor of children under 15 years of age is classified as child abuse in the broad sense of the term by the United Nations and other international organizations. A map created by the United Nations showed a large number of child laborers under 15 years of age in the countries of Africa and Asia. After my lecture, I asked the students to write a report on child labor and present their views. While the responses were what I had anticipated to some extent, they were clearly divided into two groups. The eloquent student from Myanmar announced that many children in Myanmar work to help support the family and he did not consider this to be child abuse. Students from China also supported this view. The students from Italy and Germany, hardly able to believe what they had just heard, were dumbfounded.

These cultural differences were most evident in discussions of sexual abuse. After an introductory lecture on sexual abuse, we discussed a case that clearly highlighted cultural differences in interpretations of sex abuse. The case in point was a Japanese family living in California. When a photo lab technician saw photographs of the father bathing a baby girl child, he considered it evidence of child pornography and notified the police. The police then promptly arrested the father, but later released him after an explanation of Japanese bathing practices by a well-informed contributor. After we discussed this case, I noted that my daughter and I had taken baths together up until the time she was in early elementary school. This drew strange looks from the German and Italian female students, as if I were some kind of criminal involved in child pornography. Luckily for me, a Japanese female student raised her hand and helped me out of a tough spot by bravely commenting that she had taken baths with not only her father, but also with her little brother until she was in the fifth grade. Finding it hard to believe that men and women would bathe together, even as children, the German students were full of indignation.

What constitutes abuse? At first, this seems easy to define scientifically, but it is also subject to cultural differences, and a global definition may be difficult. I hope the students from Europe do not conclude from their summer school experience that Asia is backward, but what do you all think?


Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before assuming current post.

Hi Mr Sakakihara,

Thank you for your in-depth insight into the culture differences whilst teaching abroad, it has widened my horizons and I will keep in mind the vast differences whilst I am here in Asia.
I do, however, pose a question, one which I have asked my directors about and unfortunately have had no luck in resolving the issue; I work in a private school within Asia and have come across a student who seems in every way to be experiencing either mental or physical abuse or both. The student has been very withdrawn towards myself, but recently, after 6 months of trying to bond with her, has opened up to me; not by speaking about it, but by leaving encoded messages asking for my help. Now I have approached my director about this and have been told that there is not much support or advice the school can provide, and also if I continue with my concern I could find myself out of employment. This is not about me or my employment status, this is about my duty of care as a teacher and my morals as a human, and more importantly the safety of a child. I have searched the internet in search of a solution and your blog has been the most through and useful which I have come across, if you could in anyway give me advice or maybe point me in the right direction I would be thoroughly appreciative.
Many thanks for your wonderful and educational insight and hope to hear from you soon.

Considering the serious nature of your case, I asked for suggestions.
One of my friends returned useful suggestions as below.
I hope these suggestions are of some use to resolve your difficult situation.

1) From my experience as a researcher (not a teacher), it is not possible for me to intervene directly but in cases when we do hear about possible abuse, we report it to our supervisor or counsellor within the team who would then talk to the guardian and the child to assess the issue before bringing it any further. So far, we have not had cases that escalated beyond that. An alternative would be to get in touch with the school counsellor (it is mandatory for schools to have at least one counsellor).

2) In anticipation that we will likely meet children who may be experiencing abuse, we had in mind to equip children with an outlet by providing all children with a child helpline which we have in Malaysia (it is anonymous, free and runs for 24-hours) so that if and when they need any help at all, they can contact the number. Therefore, if the country where the school is located has any child helpline, the teacher can provide it to the child or even the whole class. This is especially useful when the teacher cannot be around for the child as and when abuse takes place. However, some background check might need to be done to ensure that it is reliable.

3) I also sought the advise of a counsellor who used to be a school teacher. Her advise is for the teacher to gather evidence of the abuse particularly if it is physical. Also, talk to the child about the abuse and help the child understand that the teacher, as someone who needs to protect the child, has to stop it. The teacher may also discuss what steps she/he has to take to protect the child so that the child understands and is prepared (in addition to taking into into account what the child thinks). However, all this is to be done by bearing in mind the age of the child and his or her psychological ability to manage and comprehend the issue at hand. The teacher also has to remember that his/her duty first and foremost is to protect the child before being a friend to the child. She/he may talk to the parents to lay everything out. Let them know that if they do not see a counsellor or stop the abuse, reporting would be mandatory which will have very detrimental consequences to the family and if the child doesn't come to school after that, she/he will report immediately.

4) Alternative, the last resort would be to make an anonymous report to the Social Welfare Department and ask for a social worker to visit for an assessment.

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