Growing up scared

A look at the Norwegian regulations behind the sentencing of an Indian couple for mistreatment of their child

At present, there has been a debate in Norwegian and Indian media on a case in which an Indian couple was sentenced to 15 and 18 months of jail, respectively, by the Oslo District Court, for having mistreated their six-year-old son. The mistreatment consisted of physical punishment and threats, including burning and beating. The court considered, beyond any reasonable doubt, that such mistreatment had taken place for a period of six-seven months. Here are the main Norwegian regulations on child maltreatment.

In 2011, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its second General Comment on violence against children, clarifying the interpretation of Article 19 in the Convention: "The Committee has consistently maintained the position that all forms of violence against children, however light, are unacceptable. 'All forms of physical or mental violence' does not leave room for any level of legalised violence against children... definitions must in no way erode the child's absolute right to human dignity and physical and psychological integrity by describing some forms of violence as legally and/ or socially acceptable."

The Norwegian national regulation on violence against children expresses an interpretation of "violence" very close the committee's definition. The Act of Parents and Children states that the child must not be subjected to violence or in any other way be treated so as to harm or endanger his or her mental or physical health. This shall also apply when violence is carried out in connection with the upbringing of the child. Use of violence and frightening or annoying behaviour or other inconsiderate conduct towards the child is prohibited.

According to the Norwegian Child Welfare Act (CWA), all employees in public service, and other professionals working with children, have a duty to contact the Child Welfare Service (CWS) when there is a reason to believe that a child is being mistreated or exposed to other forms of serious neglect or abuse by their care persons. If a boy tells his teacher he does not dare go home after school because he fears being punished, that teacher may then be obliged to call the CWS. The CWS may then remove the child from home, and report the suspected mistreatment to the police. Pursuant to the CWA, such immediate removal can only be made if there is a real risk that a child will suffer serious harm by remaining at home.

It is publicly known that the parents in the actual case were sentenced by the General Civil Penal Code, Section 219. According to this provision, a person who by threats, duress, deprivation of liberty, violence or any other wrong grossly or repeatedly maltreats his or her children, spouse or other person in his or her care, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years. In Norway, there has been a strong political ambition over several years to increase the level of sentences in cases of mistreatment and abuse of children, to set a proper standard that can have a preventive effect on a general basis. The parliament has encouraged the courts to follow up on that.

In the Norwegian debate on the Indian case, some representatives from Norwegian cultural minorities have argued cultural differences must be a part of legal assessments, and that minority families struggle to get public authorities to understand their way of living and upbringing of children. Some parents experience a too narrow and "Scandinavian" interpretation of what is in the best interest of the child. The Norwegian authorities are supposed to recognise and take these experiences into account, and also have to address the fact that, in Oslo, families of cultural minorities are over-represented in child welfare statistics. Having said that, about 90 per cent of all Norwegian child welfare measures consist of voluntary, preventive measures as economic support, support for leisure activities, kindergarten, etc.

It is a fact that there exist cultural differences between India and Norway, in the upbringing of children, and maybe also in the view of children as individual members of society in their own right. But the Norwegian legal system (courts, administrative authorities, etc) cannot permit cultural arguments to serve as mitigating circumstances in cases of mistreatment and abuse. Particularly, the courts have a responsibility to avoid double legal standards based on cultural differences in such cases. This has been stressed by other minority representatives too, as part of the Norwegian discussion. Nevertheless, that does not prevent the Norwegian child welfare authorities from realising the big challenges in communication and trust towards our minority population, and that there is a lot of work to be done in the field. The debate on the Indian case has contributed to increasing public and political attention and consciousness on these questions, and hopefully that will result in a more sensitive approach towards minority families in general.

However, the standards and limits in Norwegian regulations on violence against children are not to be influenced by cultural practices. From psychological research we know that living with violence, or threats of violence, for a child means living in a condition of constant fear and insecurity. We also know how children protect their abusive parents. From research we have learned how difficult it is for a child to tell anyone about abuse and mistreatment to "betray" their parents.

In Norway, and also internationally, violence against children is a high-priority political issue.

Despite all the research in the field that has been published during the last 10-20 years, documenting the vast and often lifelong psychological effects of being exposed to domestic violence as a child, we still have significant challenges protecting these children, both practically and legally. One of the reasons for the lack of protection lies in the children not telling, the adult world not believing, or not wanting to know.

The writer is senior researcher, Norwegian Social Research, Oslo

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