Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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In some countries, children are abandoned at alarming rates, due to poverty, restrictive population control policies, and cultural traditions that value boys more than girls. Prejudice or policies against children with disabilities may lead parents to institutionalize children who are disabled or perceived to have disabilities. Once institutionalized, orphans and abandoned children may experience such extreme neglect or abuse that their lives may be endangered. They may be denied interaction, stimulation, medical care, and education and frequently learn to live in fear of the people who are their only providers of care.

In Russia in the 1990’s, children were abandoned to the state at a rate of more than 100,000 per year. Many were placed in orphanages, where they were exposed to appalling levels of cruelty and neglect. They were often beaten, locked in freezing rooms for days at a time, or sexually abused, and were often subjected to degrading treatment by staff.[87]

We found in a 1998 investigation that Russian babies who were classified as disabled were segregated into separate rooms where they were changed and fed, but were bereft of stimulation and lacking in medical care. Confined to cribs, they stared at the ceiling and were not encouraged to walk or talk. At age four, these and other children who are labeled retarded or “oligophrenic” (“small-brained”) were sent to locked and isolated “psycho-neurological internats.” According to one Russian doctor, these internats were “like a prison to the brain.  There’s a total lack of sensory stimulation.  There’s no input, no competition with other children if the others are even more retarded.  It’s just a process of slowing down, slowing down, then idling – and then – stop.”[88]

At least 30,000 children at the time of our inquiry had been labeled “ineducable,” and relegated to the psycho-neurological  internats, where many were confined to cots, often on bare rubber mattresses, and left to lie half-naked in their own urine and feces. Children deemed “too active” or “too difficult” were often placed in dark and barren rooms, sometimes tethered to a bench or their bed by a limb.  Others were restrained in makeshift straightjackets made of dingy cotton sacks pulled over the torso and drawn at the waist and neck.

One child welfare advocate estimated that the death rate in internaty was twice the rate in the general population.[89] Similar findings were made in other parts of the former Soviet Union. A 1996 national statistic from Ukraine indicated that “approximately thirty percent of all severely disabled children in special homes – a staggering figure – die before they reach eighteen.”[90]

Children deemed “educable” and who passed a test at age four were sent to a dyetskii dom, or children’s home.  While conditions in these standard orphanages were better than in the internats, children were also subject to abuse, neglect, and gratuitous cruelty. In some cases, adult staff members, with the informal consent of the orphanage director, struck and humiliated children.  In other instances, the adults engaged other orphans with them to punish a child “collectively.” One student recalled that one teacher would grab a student, strip off his or her clothes, and force the student to crawl on all fours in front of everyone.  “Then the rest of us children had to kick the child and sit on him like a horse – to humiliate him.  The kids push and kick and pull hair and ride him like an animal.  [The teacher] was an active sadist.”[91]

This pattern was particularly insidious because the favored children developed a repertoire of vicious and injurious punishments which the older, stronger orphans inflicted upon the younger or weaker ones.  Some of the punishments included forcing a smaller child into a small wooden clothes chest and throwing him out the window; “in the wind,” where smaller children were held upside down outside a window; and “velociped” (“bicycle”), an army technique where balls of cotton were stuck between a child’s toes and then lit on fire.[92]  One boy recalled:

They did a torture called “electric chair” on me.  I was laid on a metal bed, naked.  Then someone takes wires that are connected to 220 volt electricity and touches the metal bed.  The power runs through it and the kid lying on the bed shakes.[93]

Abuse by staff members included beatings, shoving a child’s head in the toilet, squeezing a hand in a vise, squeezing testicles during interrogation, locking children in a freezing, unheated room for days, and engaging children in sexual relations. Public shaming was also utilized. One child was thrown out a first floor window by the staff psychologist, a teacher, and the deputy director of the orphanage.  After complaining about this treatment, he was subsequently punished by being stripped in front of an entire classroom of both boys and girls.  The teacher took off all his clothes and threw them away.

A 1996 report by Human Rights Watch on China’s state orphanages found a horrifying pattern of cruelty, abuse and malign neglect.[94] The most recent nationwide figures available at the time (for 1989) showed that the majority of abandoned children admitted to China’s orphanages were dying in institutional care, with mortality rates in some institutions exceeding 75 percent. In China’s best-known and most prestigious orphanage, the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, the majority of infants brought to the Institute before 1993 died within a few months of arrival. Between 1986 and 1992 alone, the brutal treatment of orphans in Shanghai, which included deliberate starvation, torture, and sexual assault, led to the unnatural deaths of well over 1,000 children.[95]

Medical records and testimony obtained by Human Rights Watch from official inquiries that had been suppressed showed that deaths at the Shanghai orphanage were in many cases deliberate and cruel.  Child-care workers reportedly selected unwanted infants and children for death by intentional deprivation of food and water—a process known among the workers as the “summary resolution” of children’s alleged medical problems.  When an orphan chosen in this manner was visibly on the point of death from starvation or medical neglect, orphanage doctors were then asked to perform medical “consultations” which served as a ritual marking the child for subsequent termination of care, nutrition, and other life-saving intervention.  Deaths from acute malnutrition were then, in many cases, falsely recorded as having resulted from other causes, often entirely spurious or irrelevant conditions such as “mental deficiency” and “cleft palate.”[96]

At the Shanghai orphanage older children in particular were subject to many forms of cruel and degrading treatment, including beatings and torture at the hands of orphanage employees.  A number of girls also reported that they had been raped or sexually assaulted by various men on the orphanage staff, including the orphanage director.[97]

One six-year-old girl suffered brutal abuse by a senior staff member over a period of over twenty-four hours. After stealing several pieces of candy, the girl was beaten by the staff member with a plastic shoe and wooden mop handle. The staff member tied the girl’s wrists to the metal frame of a high window, forcing her to stand on tiptoe, and then began pummeling the girl with her fists. The girl was left hanging from the window for the remainder of the day. Once she was finally taken down, she was not allowed to sleep, but was kept tied in a standing position throughout the night. The following morning, she was beaten again.[98]

In another instance, a fifteen-year-old boy was knocked to the ground and beaten for some ninety minutes by the orphanage director, and then locked inside a shed for four days with little food. Although the beating was witnessed by a number of other orphans as well as staff, the director later forced staff members to deny that the incident had taken place. One who refused to do so was demoted as a result.[99]

Brutal punishments were often inflicted for relatively minor disciplinary infractions, or simply on the whim of child-care workers. These included:

  • forcing children to assume the “airplane” and “motorcycle” positions for long periods of time (respectively, bent forward horizontally at the waist with arms held vertically upward, and sitting unsupported at half-squat with arms stretched forward horizontally).  In some cases, children were also forced to balance bowls of hot water on their wrists, heads, or knees or to squat over bowls of boiling water, so that scalding occurred when the child fell;

  • forcing children to kneel on ridged washboards for long periods of time;

  • hanging children upside down with their heads submerged in water, until nosebleeds and near-suffocation ensued.  This technique, known as qiang shui (“choking on water”), was reportedly the one most feared by children.

[87] Human Rights Watch, Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998).

[88] Ibid., p. 76.

[89] Ibid., p. 22.

[90] Ibid., p. 23.

[91] Ibid., p. 120.

[92] Ibid., p. 123-125.

[93] Ibid., p. 123.

[94] Death by Default: A Policy of Fatal Neglect in China's Orphanages (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

[95] Ibid., p. 4, pp. 127-128.

[96] Ibid., pp. 146-154.

[97] Ibid., pp. 265-267.

[98] Ibid., pp. 262-263.

[99] Ibid., pp. 261-262.

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