A recent report suggests a growing number of Romanian children are being subjected to emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse in their own families. Experts put the blame on worsening economic and social conditions as well as a traditional mentality that supports corporal punishment. With international help, officials and NGOs are stepping up efforts to curb abuse -- but changing people's mentalities could prove the most challenging task.
Prague, 1 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Child abuse in Romania was long thought to affect mostly orphans in child-care institutions and children living on the streets.
But a recent study -- the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe -- reveals a surprisingly high incidence of emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse against children within their own families.
The study, conducted by various Romanian government agencies and international nongovernmental organizations, examined more than 1,500 Romanian households.
It revealed the most common form of child abuse to be emotional abuse, seen in more than half of households (55 percent) surveyed. Some form of physical abuse, ranging from mild corporal punishment to -- in extreme cases -- the death of a child, was prevalent in just under half of the households (47 percent).
The prevalence of abuse was higher than previously believed. The official number of child abuse cases last year was 700, but experts say the real number -- based on the results of the survey -- could be much, much higher.
Georgeta Paunescu, an expert in child abuse with the nongovernmental organization "Save the Children," tells RFE/RL that it's difficult to track the number of abuse cases because the country lacks a central data base to record incidents of abuse.
"This is one of the problems we [NGOs] and Romania in general are facing: the absence of a national, centralized system to monitor all cases and all types of abuse against children. Hospitals are the only institutions supposed to report the cases to the interior ministry. The other institutions which may record or may at least have knowledge of such cases [of sexual abuses] are not required by law to report them. Thus, they are not centralized in a database which could show how frequent they are."
Experts say emotional abuse is the most difficult form of abuse to detect and can lead to life-long psychological trauma. Most forms of emotional abuse are caused by conflicts between the parents. But emotional abuse can also take the form of parental neglect or even overprotectiveness.
Physical abuse most often takes the form of beating. The study found that slapping is the most common form of physical abuse, but the study also revealed numerous incidents of abuse involving a weapon like a club or a broomstick.
The study found that some 9 percent of children in polled families were sexually abused by their parents. Most often, it was the mother's partner who would sexually abuse a step-child. But cases were also reported of natural fathers abusing their own offspring.
Analysts say poverty, ignorance, and alcohol abuse play a role in child abuse.
But Paunescu of Save the Children says a system of values that tolerates physical or corporal punishment against children is also to blame.
"In the case of the [typical] Romanian family, the mentality indeed plays a very important role. This mentality works like this: 'I gave life to the child, I will kill him if necessary -- if I beat him up and raise him in very severe discipline, I will turn him into a real man. I myself was beaten up and now look at me, I am a respectable man and that's very good.'"
Paunescu says in order to prevent future abuse, this mentality must be changed.
But that won't be easy. Many families have been adversely affected by the transition to a market economy from a centrally planned one. Fathers have lost jobs, companies have gone bankrupt. Officials also have failed to establish systems that would adequately care for children.
Theodora Bertzi, a director in the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoptions (ANPCA) a newly established government agency that deals with child protection, says the authorities' top priority should be to create a legal framework to protect children:
"First of all, we need legislation to require every person, and especially those who through their professions come into contact with children -- teachers, doctors, social workers -- to report such abuse and to punish those who fail to report them. Furthermore, those who report should have their identity protected by law."
Bertzi says some changes have already been incorporated into the criminal code. These include measures to punish parents who use violence against their children.
But Bertzi says civil society must also do more to change old-fashioned mentalities. She says some NGOs have already started programs in schools to inform children about their rights.
"Children are most responsive when it comes to knowing their own rights. Since they themselves later become adults, once they learn about children's rights, they'll know they must behave differently with their own kids. NGOs have many programs in schools, where they send people to talk to children about such things."
Bertzi says the study analyzing the situation of child abuse in Romanian families was just the first phase of the child-protection reform project. The government's next step, she adds, will be to create a national monitoring system with a centralized database of all cases of child abuse.