The World Health Organization

World Health Organization* Definition of Child Abuse

Taken from the Report on the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention Geneva, March 29-31, 1999

The focus of the consultation as initially child abuse in the family context, yet the pronounced overlap between child abuse in the family and the broader society necessitates a broadening of the field of view. It also recognized that one definition of child abuse cannot serve all purposes; for example a definition that would serve to increase awareness differs from that of service provision, and the definition for legal purposes differs from that for research. For that reason a diagnosis must be adaptable and include descriptions of different types or classifications which can be adapted and/or expanded on as is appropriate for the setting.

A child is defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as “Every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable under the child majority is attained earlier. Throughout the consultation the importance of the CRC in the area of child abuse was emphasized. While Article 19 of the convention specifically addresses child abuse and recommends a broad outline for its identification, reporting, investigation, treatment, follow-up and prevention. Other articles in the convention emphasize the important role of the healthcare community in monitoring and reporting child abuse, as a channel of advocacy and direct technical support in other countries. The convention in discussing multiple rights and responsibilities, emphasizes that rights refers to the child’s “…social, spiritual and moral wellbeing and physical and mental health and to achievement of fullest possible physical development in all areas.” To access a full text, please click on:

Preamble to the Definition
Child Abuse has serious physical and psychosocial consequences which adversely affect health. It refers to any act or failure to act that violates the rights of the child, that endangers his or her optimum health, survival and development.

Awareness of cultural factors must remain high as they influence all aspects from the occurrence and definition through its treatment and successful prevention. Any intervention, to be successful whether for data gather, prevention or even increasing public awareness, must take into consideration the cultural environment in which it is to occur. Background or baseline conditions beyond the control of families or caretakers, such as poverty, inaccessible healthcare, inadequate nutrition, unavailability of education can be contributing factors to child abuse. Social upheaval and instability, conflict and war may also contribute to increases in child abuse and neglect.

General Definition
Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes 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, trust or power.

Physical abuse
Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of an interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power or trust. There may be a single or repeated incidents.

Emotional abuse
Emotional abuse includes the failure to provide a developmentally appropriate, supportive environment, including the availability of a primary attachment figure, so that the child can develop a stable and full range of emotional and social competencies commensurate with her or his personal potentials and in the context of the society in which the child dwells. There may also be acts towards the child that cause or have a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. These acts must be reasonably within the control of the parent or person in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Acts include restriction of movement, patterns of belittling, denigrating, scapegoating, threatening, scaring, discriminating, ridiculing or other non-physical forms of hostile or rejecting treatment.

Neglect and negligent treatment
Neglect is the failure to provide for the development of the child in all spheres: health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter, and safe living conditions, in the context of resources reasonably available to the family or caretakers and causes or has a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This includes the failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm as much as is feasible.

Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to:

Commercial or other exploitation of a child refers to use of the child in work or other activities for the benefit of others. This includes, but is not limited to, child labour and child prostitution. These activities are to the detriment of the child’s physical or mental health, education, or spiritual, moral or social-emotional development.

pp. 13-17, Report of the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention, Geneva, 29-31 March 1999, World Health Organization, Social Change and Mental Health, Violence and Injury Prevention.

Other Definitions

For more detailed definitions, please click on any of the following:

* A copy of the full Report on the Consultation may be obtained through the World Health Organization website at:

Or you may write to:

Violence & Injury Prevention Team
Cluster on Social Change and Mental Health
World Health Organization
20 Avenue Appia
1211 Geneva 27
Fax: 0041.22.791.4332