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.


  • Early learnings – abusers who’ve been abused have accepted wrong behaviour as normal Background of little girl sitting in the corner with head down and a teddy bear with beer bottle in the foreground.
  • Lack of self-control
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health disorder

Types of child abuse

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional or psychological abuse
  • Neglect
  • Exploitation

Signs of child abuse

Child abuse can take many different forms, but here's some help to identify the signs:

  • Signs of physical abuse
    • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruises, or welts in the shape of an object.
    • Bite marks.
    • Anti-social behaviour.
    • Problems in school.
    • Fear of adults.
    • Suicide attempts.
  • 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.

Effects of child abuse

  • Impaired brain development
  • Poor physical health
  • Psychological issues
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioural issues
  • Abusive to others

Children’s rights and services Happy children playing in the park, up close portrait

Understanding your child’s rights can help to protect them from abuse. The Children’s Act 38 of 2005 is dedicated to protecting your child’s rights. The two laws which cover child abuse and neglect are:

1. Section 15/110 of the Child Care Amendment Act
This act refers to any person who has a responsibility of caring for children - for example teachers, social workers, and doctors. If any of these people suspect that a child has been abused, they must report this to the provincial Department of Social Development.

2. The Prevention of Family Violence Act No 133 of 1993 (Section 4)
Suspected child abuse must be reported to a police officer or a child welfare officer or social worker.

Reporting child abuse

More Information

The content on this page was last updated on 8 November 2018