Hurt And Abused Children In Ethiopia: Cultural Calamity


Violence towards children is embedded into the social conditioning of Ethiopia, all too often mistakenly termed ‘culture’, and excused thereby, “In our culture there is a saying that if a female is not circumcised she will break things. So families circumcise their children.” 14-year-old girl.“ (ACPF) This is superstitious nonsense and needs to be seen as such. Within the Ethiopian criminal code many harmful traditional practices are dealt with and in some detail, “crimes committed against Life, Person and Health through Harmful Traditional Practices.”1 (This is the second article in a series. To read the first installment, click here.)

This and other articles in the criminal code need to be consistently implemented and education programmes enlightening prejudices, freeing children and indeed parents from such damaging, ignorant practices need to be initiated throughout the country.

‘Culture’, that much misinterpreted, overused term of convenience, cited so often in the mistreatment of children, provides no justification for practices that are instrumental in causing deep hardship and suffering, to the most vulnerable in society. “Cultural and traditional beliefs deeply rooted in society sanction violence as a way of disciplining children. In addition, there is no tradition or knowledge of alternative ways of disciplining children other than resorting to violent practices. Worse, is the fact that children remain powerless victims, their viewpoints and opinions generally ignored, with no formal or traditional recourse for redress or protection.” (ACPF)

Ethiopia has a rich and ancient culture; let it not be soiled by the inclusion of abuse, violence and the exploitation of its children.

Seen but not heard

There is little or no freedom of expression throughout Ethiopian civil society. Within the hierarchy of family and the community, including school, children are held firmly in their subservient place. Parents, grandparents and other ‘senior’ family members, in addition to older siblings, enjoy a position of authority over the children in their ‘care’, “In the majority of Ethiopian communities, children are generally viewed as parental property.”2

This inhibiting restricted state of control extends from the family into the community at large. Children are treated as servants, often little better than slaves in fact, “children are not being treated as human beings born and endowed with their own particular interests and the capacity to make decisions for themselves.” (EPPAC) The child’s human and moral rights are not observed and the children themselves are unaware they have any. They are conditioned, by pervading attitudes as demonstrated by parents, teachers and members of the community into believing they deserve to be mistreated, feel they have no recourse to law or communal support and no avenues of complaint.

Excluding children from society, denying them a voice and forcing them to work. Restricting their participation to running household errands and undertaking whatever menial chores their seniors order, maintains methods of repression and abuse, which control children throughout Ethiopian society. “The low status accorded to children and lack of awareness was frequently mentioned by children and adults as the major cause for the continued practice of corporal and other forms of punishments against children.” (EPPAC)

Platforms of expression and channels of complaint providing children with ways of voicing their concerns and highlighting the many injustices they live under are essential elements in facilitating change. “Corporal punishment of children, particularly by parents, is either not reported or not properly prosecuted.” (EPPAC) Including children in the consultative stage of legislation as it relates to child offenses, in the home, in school and the community at large, would empower children and help to establish positive relationships with authority and the relevant government bodies. Consultation with children would strengthen research and provide them with a voice, a crucial factor in shifting the child’s current position of exclusion and powerlessness. “Children’s feelings and voices are [not] captured or even consulted in the process of legislation on issues concerning their welfare and rights.” (EPPAC)

Parental abuse lasting damage

Many of the children we worked with in Addis Ababa aged from 5 to 18 years old, recounted stories of being repeatedly and aggressively abused, physically, sexually and verbally. Whether street children, commercial sex workers (CSW)-often the victim of rape, or children from disadvantaged backgrounds in schools, they shared stories of violence at the hands of Mothers, Fathers, family members and teachers, social workers, older children and stepparents. “Children who live with stepfathers or stepmothers suffer the most at home. Stepparents severely beat or psychologically rebuke their stepchildren.” (SSBB) Surprisingly perhaps it is Mothers who are most often violent to there children, “since mothers work most of the time in the home, they spend more time with their children than do fathers, and thus abuse the children more frequently than the fathers.” (SSBB)

Shame and embarrassment coloured the tone of the children’s harrowing accounts, emotional bruising more difficult perhaps to recognise than a broken limb, or scarred flesh. “Corporal punishment may leave behind temporary or permanent injuries on children. In extreme cases, it may even result in death. There are incidents where children become unconscious, bleed, break their backbone, lose a limb or fingers as a result of physical abuse. “(EPPAC)

There are various types of physical violence and verbal abuse commonly employed to punish and control children. “More than 60 percent of adults in the study admitted to tying up a child with rope or electrical wire.” Over 70% had been hit with a stick or some other weapon. Hitting on the head, slapping, pinching, and whipping with a belt, kneeling or squatting down are all methods of cruelty employed and revealed in the ACPF study. In extreme cases, where the child is being taught an unforgettable lesson “Their hands are twisted and tied together behind their backs with rope. They are then ordered to kneel-down with objects stuffed into their mouths and forced to stay in that position for long periods, or are flogged many times on the back” (SSBB) This is torture, and at the hands of ‘loving’ parents, Grandparents and the like

All forms of abuse impact on the psyche of the child, affecting his/her psychological landscape colouring every aspect of the evolving life from childhood into adulthood. “As adults, children who experienced abuse or neglect have an increased likelihood of criminal behaviour, involvement in violent crime, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and abusive behaviour.”3 The impact on the child of repeated violence and abuse is difficult to assess and quantify and “there is little understanding, if any, of how harmful such violence can be to a child’s development, growth and survival.” (ACPF) There are however clear indicators that demonstrate the impact of physical and emotional abuse on a child’s ability to learn, to establish and maintain healthy lasting social relationships and to interact in a harmless positive manner within their community. To feel whole, healthy and of value. “I got very scared and felt useless when my mother threatened me that she would rather kill me and go to jail.” 13-year-old. “Our drunkard uncle with whom we live beats my little brother, who is three years old. As a result, he is now very scared of people. I cry for him and I feel terrible about how we live,” 13-year-old (ACPF). All men and women of goodwill will raise their hands to the heavens and shed a tear at this infant’s pain.

Fear, loss of self-confidence, low self-esteem and guilt, colour the lives of many abused children, “The impact of child abuse and neglect is far greater than its immediate, visible effects. These experiences can shape child development and have consequences that last for years, even lifetimes.” Reoccurring cycles of abuse by parents, where the child is repeatedly exposed or witness to physical violence, threats and verbal intimidation, often cause the children themselves to become violent, “they hit us because they passed through the same experiences during their childhood, and they think that corporal punishment is the best way of disciplining children.” Focus group participants aged 10-18-years-old (ACPF)

Conditioned into violence, children repeat the destructive pattern of behaviour they have been the victims of. “Intergenerational cycle/s of violence – violence that is passed from father to son or daughter, parent to child, or sibling to sibling. Children exposed to domestic violence are likely to develop behavioural problems, such as regressing, exhibiting out of control behaviour, and imitating behaviour. Children may think that violence is an acceptable behaviour (within) intimate relationships and become either the abused or the abuser.”4 “The physical, psychological, and behavioural consequences of child abuse and neglect impact not just the child and family, but the community as a whole.”5 Violence breed’s violence, abuse leads to more abuse, individually and collectively “Studies indicate that children who have experienced physical violence in the early years often become violent as adults.” (EPPAC)

Parents need to be made aware of the effects of repeated verbal and physical abuse and that violence towards the child is a criminal offense. Political will and moral responsibility In accordance with the Governments legal obligations must be expressed in the enforcement of the law by the appropriate authourities. Education, deterrents and platforms of expression plus clear channels of recourse for children, will together help change attitudes, curb destructive behavior and empower the young.

This is part of a series. To read the first installment, click here.

1. Study on violence against schoolchildren. (VASC) Save The Children Denmark & Ethiopian Ministry of Education.
2. Ending Physical and Humiliating Punishment against children. (EPPAC) Save the Children Sweden

Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with acutely disadvantaged children and conducting teacher training programmes. Website:

One thought on “Hurt And Abused Children In Ethiopia: Cultural Calamity

  • March 30, 2012 at 3:04 am

    Thank you for your report, It was so touching and so true. I have to say, you story is some thing that happened every day in Ethiopia, but most people live and ignore the truth. I have many story I witnessed growing up special child abuse . Every thing I see on your writing is what I witnessed growing -up. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *