MUMBAI: When a 12-year-old girl was brought to Cooper Hospital, Juhu, with a finger broken, a little bit of questioning revealed that her father’s anger at her poor preparation for the exams had resulted in the "injury". Whenever this 11-year-old misbehaved, his mother had a standard punishment. She would drag him to the nearest police chowky and ask the policeman to give her son a "dhamki". What she hadn't noticed was that this had transformed the child into a nervous wreck. A ten-year-old boy’s mother had literally whipped up a red-hot recipe for punishment—hours of kneeling on chilli powder. She seemed not to connect the punishing spells with his lack of concentration in the classroom. In a city in which four-year-old Dhurta recently landed in hospital with a fractured arm and several bruises after her step-mother beat her, it emerges that many children are routinely put through abuse — whether physical, verbal or psychological — by none other than their mothers. In most cases, the mothers don’t even know they are in the wrong. The emotional scarring of the above-mentioned boys was noticed by their teachers at Anjuman-i-Islam Allana School, near CST, and their mothers were suitably warned. But many such cases go unnoticed. A talk with doctors at hospitals and clinics as well as with social workers reveals that physical abuse of children at home is not uncommon. "Once a fortnight, we get children with broken arms or contusions that make us wonder about the reasons for the injuries," says a doctor at KEM Hospital.
The only difference is that while stories of battered babies are flashed in US newspapers fairly routinely, cases such as the one involving Dhurta come up in India once in a while. At present, the US is engrossed in the tale of a comatose 11-year-old, Haleigh Poutre, who was beaten with a baseball bat by her step-father and adoptive mother. "India too has battered children, perhaps more in number than in the US," says social psychiatrist Harish Shetty, who has counselled many abused children and their parents. Children with contusions or bruises without open cuts are often treated in the hospital’s casualty ward itself and allowed to go after being administered medicines.
Orthopaedic surgeon P Bhosale of KEM Hospital recalls only two children who were brought in with multiple fractures because "only the worst cases reach the surgeons". Dr A Kharkanis of Cooper Hospital says what distinguishes an abused children from a child who has broken her arm in a fall is the accompanying swelling. "Battered or abused children will have heavily swollen arms along with the fracture," he says, adding that his hospital gets at least a couple of paediatric cases every year involving domestic violence. Cases of moderate physical abuse are rampant as a study done by the World Health Organisation in 2001 found in India. Rehana Sultan, principal of Anjuman-i-Islam Allana English School, says that children come to school with 'chatka' marks (branding with a hot iron rod).
"It's shocking that the mothers don't realise how broken their children are," she says. The school, after discovering cases of psychological and physical abuse among its children last year, has begun addressing the issue at every parent-teacher meeting. Why do parents abuse their own? According to psychiatrist Vihang Vahia, "Child battering is a globally recorded occurrence among parents who are drug addicts or have psychological problems. In other cases, an unwanted child is often subjected to violence." He believes that in middle-class homes, the cases are a reflection of the rage in society. "Road rage is on the increase. Similarly, at home, your rage is diverted at the easiest victim—your child." Dr Kharkanis believes that stress over a child's scholastic work often leads some parents to beat their child mercilessly.
Dr Shetty feels parents or mothers who severely hit their child are ailing themselves. "The mother is perhaps mentally ailing or at the receiving end of her husband's alcoholism. In such cases, the parents are counselled along with the children," he adds. So, is sparing the rod the answer? According to Sujata G of Support, which runs a home for abandoned children in Santa Cruz, "The problem in our society is one of extremes. Either parents hit their children too much or don't even raise an eyebrow at their mistakes." Her group thus gets battered and or abandoned children as well as children doing drugs as their parents have never felt the need to correct them. "The need is for good parenting skills and setting parameters for our children," she says.