KUNMING, Dec. 5 (Xinhua) -- "Xiaogang", 13, has finally made it back to school after being absent for over six years.
The surly boy at the back of the classroom is conspicuously taller than his classmates. Chinese children of his age are normally in junior high, but the misfortunes of Xiaogang's family robbed him of his chance of an education, and he still languishes in primary school.
"His father was an alcoholic who used to beat Xiaogang up," said Li Xian, an official of the local women's federation, "Xiaogang then joined his mother with her new family, but his stepfather often abused them."
On Wednesday, UNICEF China and the All China Women's Federation (ACWF) released a toolkit for local administrations and grassroots community welfare workers who have to deal with troubled children and families, and called for better practice in safeguarding children's rights.
The toolkit is the result of a campaign launched in 2011 in Yuxi, an economically undeveloped part of southwest China's Yunnan Province, which homed in on prevention and response to violence against children within the community.
It is well known that many parents from rural China go to work in cities, leaving their children in the care of grandparents or other relatives. Xiaogang now lives with his aunt, whose family depends heavily on farming. Xiaogang's father and mother hardly offer her any help at all.
"Parents struggle far away to provide food and clothing, but few understand what rights children have, let alone telling them how to protect those rights," said Luo Xin, head of the village where Xiaogang lives.
"Left-behind children are at higher risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation because they grow up without adequate parental oversight and guidance," said Jolanda Van Westering, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF China.
Traditional Chinese norms follow the "spare the rod, spoil the child", philosophy and whatever happens at home is a private, family matter, and nobody else's business. Many children accept beatings as a normal part of their lives. Few children dare to speak out their suffering at home, thus violence against children is called "invisible violence".
LEARNING for SELF-PROTECTION
The pilot program offered training to children, teachers and single parents, to change their attitudes towards violence. Local women's federations set up diverse support systems including "12338", a women's rights hot line, coupled with community support and police intervention.
Most students heard of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for the first time in the classes, and now understand that being shy about reporting violence will only bring them more harm.
"If I were being attacked by some strangers, I would shout, bite and beat them," Li Shuoyu, 13, said firmly. He was astonished to learn of so many cases of violence against children, and moreover, to discover that boys could be victims of sexual abuse.
"The training filled in the blanks," said Li Wei, who took the course for teachers. "We have tried to warn students about sexual violence before, but we just didn't know how to talk about sex naturally."
Luo Xin told Xinhua that the divorce rate in the region is very high. Single parenthood is acknowledged as an important stress factor for families.
"Zhang Rong" is a single mother. There are over 80 one-parent families in her community. She confesses that the everyday burdens of her life make her depressed, and she sometimes loses control and vents her bad moods on her son.
"Very regretful," said Zhang when asked to describe her feelings after beating her son: "Sometimes my boy cries. So do I."
With the help of the program and local authorities, single parents like Zhang formed a team named "The Single Wing Club" to share their difficulties and learn how to take better care of their children with the help of social psychologists.
"Many parents have changed their attitude and learned how to transform depression into confidence," said Yuan Ping, a psychology volunteer on the program.
As poverty is one of the premier problems of single-parent families, the community is also considering further training to enhance single parents' work skills and calling for more loans.
"We really hope that the ACWF model in Yuxi can be upscaled across the whole country," said Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF's Representative to China.
According to UNICEF, more than 60,000 children, parents, teachers and other welfare workers have benefited from its projects in China since 2005.
Tong Lihua, lawyer and founder of ChinaChild.org, a nonprofit legal aid website for child victims, spoke highly of the program for providing proper information and training to all sides. He also want to see amendments to the criminal law to provide special sanctions for crimes against children.
When Xiaogang was first sent to school by his aunt last year, the school headmaster was reluctant to receive "the truant boy". Then, on November 4, UNICEF Ambassador, actress Maggie Zhang walked into Xiaogang's home and told him to get back to his studies. By the end of last month, Xiaogang finally returned to school with the help of many wellwishers.
When he was asked about his favorite course, he suggested mathematics, with a hint of a smile.