A likely consequence of the much-talked about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt split is the attention it will bring to “child abuse”, which has been listed as one of the reasons for Jolie filing for divorce from her husband and father of their six kids (three of them adopted). A celebrity-obsessed culture means that inadvertently or deliberately celebrity lives can become vehicles of social messaging. Diana drew focus on unhappy marriages. Jolie-Pitt themselves were the poster couple for adoption. Charges of sexual harassment on Bill Cosby drew focus on an issue that still remains a taboo in many parts of the world – that of date rape.
On the one hand, celebrities, purely by being media magnets, can be said to draw attention to important social issues. But on the other, they can be accused of trivialising them.
The allegations of reported child abuse against Pitt by Jolie is one such case where opinion will be divided. Source-based news, as is usually the case with celebrity reportage, is busy taking sides: was Jolie, an award winning actress with a humanitarian reputation, putting her kids first, in light of substance and anger issues displayed by her husband? There is speculation whether Pitt did in fact “make contact” with the child he is accused of lashing out at in an episode purportedly caught on cameras. In event of a divorce, Pitt comes out looking bad and Jolie stands to gain.
The case is reportedly under investigation, but the widespread media interest has caused at least some discussion around child abuse. This is one of the most rampant forms of violence against children which remains hidden in homes and goes unreported.
The World Health Organisation defines child abuse and child maltreatment as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility”.
While child labour and child sexual violence have found focus among legislators and in the media in recent years, physical and emotional abuse of children as well as their neglect continues to be less discussed. People tend to think of it as a “family matter”. Children, being dependent on their caregivers, don’t talk about it - and the focus on “discipline” in many cultures normalises violence against children. A 2007 study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that children between the ages of 5-12 are at the highest risk for abuse and exploitation, with a high number - 69% - of children reported to have been physically abused.
Despite corporal punishment being banned in schools, enforcement is weak and cases are still being reported. Despite governments strengthening laws and fines and issuing new guidelines, cases have continued to come to light. This is because of an overall culture of instilling “discipline” and “respect” both at home and in schools, where “sparing the rod” is seen as “spoiling the child”. Children are seen as the personal property of parents, who can do with them as they like, with little regard for child rights and dignity.
Not enough studies have been conducted on implications, but the consequences are understood to be damaging: children who suffer abuse grow up to develop psychological and social disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), along with poor physical health. A recent study highlights the lasting and extensive effects of child violence and suggests it affects girls in particular, shortening their life span. Of the 6,300 middle-aged US adults studied, the research found female survivors of child abuse were more likely to die over the next 20 years, versus other women.
Physical and emotional violence towards children damages them at a core level, leaving them in lifelong darkness. Because much of it takes place within the four walls of a home and goes unreported, legislation can’t help as much as awareness and change in homes itself will.
Regarding the Jolie-Pitt case, there are varying arguments regarding the allegations of child abuse. There are reports that this was the first time Pitt has shown violence towards his children. One problem with this view is that nobody knows what goes on inside a home, and a visible tip of the iceberg can’t be seen as the full representation of the problem. Violence against women and children is not a class issue, any class can be affected, the rich and famous are not necessarily any less vulnerable to abuse inside the home.
Next, even if it was true that the alleged perpetrator may have not displayed violent tendencies before, while only investigations and the parents concerned can know the truths of the situation and a suitable course of action, those sympathetic to Pitt as being “not really like that” should ask themselves: do we not say to women not to forgive and return to a man who is violent, because we have seen that is a mistake, often fatal? Of course, in the Pitt-Jolie case the charges have not been proved and till such time, one cannot take either Jolie’s claims or Pitt’s denials at face value. But either way, what this case underlines is the fact that violence towards those in the home is a serious matter, and if we counsel women not to take it lightly, why should we have a different yardstick with regard to violence against children, who are even more vulnerable and at a tender age of development.