What is Child Abuse? | Western Cape Government

What is Child Abuse?

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes child abuse as a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there's an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress.

Child abuse can happen anywhere and child abusers come from all walks of life. They can be anyone from parents, close family members, teachers, coaches and family friends. It could be anyone who has access to a child and is in a position to mistreat them.

Often people who abuse children were themselves abused as kids. This cycle of abuse can be hard to break if not dealt with appropriately and can pass down for generations within a family.

 Abuse in relation to a child, is a pattern of behaviour which can be defined as any form of harm of ill-treatment deliberately inflicted on a child, and includes:

  1. Assaulting a child or inflicting any other form of deliberate injury to a child;
  2. Sexually abusing a child or allowing a child to be sexually abused;
  3. Bullying by another child
  4. A labour practice that exploits a child; or
  5. Exposing or subjecting a child to behavior that may harm the child psychologically or emotionally.


Risk factorsBackground of little girl sitting in the corner with head down and a teddy bear with beer bottle in the foreground.

Problems most commonly associated with the occurrence of child abuse and neglect are domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, parental mental health issues, poverty and young people that are disconnected from their families. Very often, children are abused within the family, by a caregiver or someone they know.

Types of child abuse

Children may suffer any one or a combination of the following forms of abuse:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect, which is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, love and affection or much-needed medical care when the parent or caregiver is able to do so.
  • Exploitation, which is a form of abuse and includes trafficking, child labour and online abuse.

Signs of child abuse

Child abuse can take many different forms, but here is a short list of signs that must be individually assessed within a child’s broader circumstances:

Physical signs:

  • Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained
  • Failure to gain weight or sudden dramatic weight gain
  • Headaches or stomach aches with no medical cause
  • Genital pain or bleeding
  • Abdominal pain, bed-wetting (especially if the child has already been toilet trained)
  • A sexually transmitted disease

Other signs that should raise concern:

  • Trouble sleeping (nightmares; sleeping too much)
  • Extreme sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Trouble with school (poor grades, poor attention, not wanting to go to school)
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-mutilating behaviour
  • A child who has been abused needs special support and treatment as early as possible. (A close relationship with a very supportive adult can increase resiliency, reducing some of the impact.)
  • Suicidal, withdrawn or violent behaviour
  • Substance abuse
  • Attempts to run away, refusing discipline or abusing others
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms
  • Admittance to different hospitals in attempt to avoid proper investigation

Signs of emotional abuse

  • Apathy.
  • Depression.
  • Hostility or stress.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Headaches, nausea, abdominal pains.
  • Suicide attempts.

Signs of sexual abuse

  • Inappropriate interest or knowledge of sexual acts or knowledge of sexual terminology for child’s age.
  • Nightmares and bed wetting.
  • Drastic changes in appetite.
  • Overcompliance or excessive aggression.
  • Fear of a particular person or family member.
  • Depression and suicide attempts.
  • Self-mutilating behaviour (self-inflicted cuts, sores and/or burns). Wet miserable teddy bear left behind on a swing

Signs of neglect

  • Unsuitable clothing for weather.
  • Dirty or unbathed.
  • Extreme hunger.
  • Apparent lack of supervision.
  • Abandonment.
  • Insufficient safety precautions in the home.
  • Unattended medical, dental or educational needs.

Signs of exploitation

  • All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, including debt bondage or forced marriage.
  • Sexual exploitation.
  • Servitude.
  • Forced labour or services.
  • Removal of organs.

Long-term consequences

While physical wounds may heal, there are many long-term consequences of experiencing the trauma of abuse:

  • Impaired brain development
  • Poor physical health
  • Psychological issues
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioural issues
  • Involvement in crime

Preventing abuse and neglect

Parents and family are recognised as the first duty-bearers to ensure the safety of a child at all times. Children should be taught the basic rules of safety and be supervised by responsible adults at all times. Community-based support services can be accessed at any ISIBINDI, Eye-on-the-Child, Drop-In Centre, or organisations rendering HIV support and/or prevention and early intervention services. Information on how to cope,  or acquire parenting skills and/or family resilience is available. 

Reporting child abuse or neglect

The Children’s Act 38 of 2005 mandates specific categories of people involved with children (e.g. correctional officials, teachers, medical practitioners, traditional leaders or volunteers) who on reasonable grounds conclude that a child has been treated in a manner causing physical injury, sexually abused or deliberately neglected, to report that conclusion on a Form 22 to a designated child protection organisation , the Provincial Department of Social Development or a police official (section 110(1)). This report should give a clear indication of the urgency and the level of danger the child is in.

Happy children playing in the park, up close portrait A voluntary report may be made in terms of section 110(2) by any person who on reasonable grounds believes that a child is in need of care and protection (as per section 150(1)). A report can be made orally, telephonically, or in writing.

If a report is made at any of the Thuthuzela Care Centres, it will be appropriately referred.

Child protection services may require evidence of patterns of harm or mental injury to the child as part of their investigation and assessment into the congruence of the facts and explanations. Information will be assessed within a multi-disciplinary team.

Reporting child abuse

More Information

The content on this page was last updated on 29 August 2022