It’s essential that youth workers and youth organisations can recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse. Every safeguarding policy needs to include definitions of what safeguarding is and the definitions and signs of abuse. 

How youth organisations talk about abuse isn’t universal

Defining abuse isn’t straightforward, because how you define it within your organisation will depend upon what your local laws say. Additionally, you will need to explain it in ways that are locally understood and clear to those who will be reading your policy. For these reasons, it’s important not to copy others’ definitions, but to reflect as you put together your own, ideally with an expert. 

Opening youth workers’ eyes to abuse

Abuse isn’t always obvious. Children may not be visibly bruised or able to talk about what they have experienced. Women and girls may not realise that abuse or a threat they experience is one, because they have experienced it before, or see it as normal. 

Even we may not see an incident as abuse because we ourselves have experienced it before or it is normal in our communities. 

If it’s normal, it’s still abuse

It’s overwhelming when we see abuse as normalised. In preparing these guides, a youth worker wrote, “What can we do? It is officials in our town who are a threat to our young women and girls”. In these circumstances, there may be little you can do without placing the girls and yourselves in greater danger. However, you must be committed to addressing it in any way possible. 

Definitions of abuse: 

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.

Report on the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention, WHO, 1999

Adult Abuse is mistreatment by any other person or persons that violates a person’s human and civil rights. The abuse can vary, from treating someone with disrespect in a way that significantly affects the person’s quality of life, to causing actual physical or mental suffering. People with care and support needs are more likely to be abused or neglected.

Lumos Foundation, 2018

Physical abuse

Actual or potential physical harm.  Could be perpetrated by another child. 

Emotional abuse

Persistent emotional maltreatment such as restriction of movement, degrading, humiliating, bullying (including cyber bullying), and threatening, scaring, discriminating, ridiculing or other non-physical forms of hostile or rejecting treatment.


Persistent failure to meet a person’s physical and psychological needs. 

Sexual abuse

The actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

United Nations

Sexual exploitation

Any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.

United Nations

Reflection Questions

  • Are any of these definitions new to you?
  • Is there anything that surprises you?

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