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Law and Crime

How Abandonment Weakens Human Rights

A closer look at what deters people from reaching out.

Key points

  • Abandonment can cause serious harm and have grave consequences for individuals and communities.
  • Studies indicate that the fear of abandonment deters people from exploring human rights legal protections.
  • Studies in psychology and human rights emphasize the need to better understand abandonment-related fears.

The experience of abandonment has been examined from different lenses. Many works contribute to understanding its impact and deep connections with the human psyche, power, politics, morality, and law.

In Landscapes of Abandonment (2003), for example, Salerno delves into the diverse disciplinary frameworks on abandonment (including themes of separation, anxiety, loss, aloneness, etc.). In terms of impact, Selerno discusses the anxieties associated with abandonment and how they place limits on the path of self-actualization and social progress. The book calls for a closer look at abandonment including its description, meaning, and diverse manifestations in conscience, community, nature, and globalization (Salerno 2003: 5).

Aspects of Abandonment

In the field of human rights, the concept of abandonment is central to understanding some of the many challenges stakeholders face. Abandonment is defined as serious harm that cuts across parameters like age, income, place of residence, political status, gender, etc. At least four aspects of abandonment have been subject to most discussion. These include:

  • the parties to the experience of abandonment
  • the experience/incident of abandonment
  • the impact or consequences of abandonment
  • the diverse responses to such experiences

Each of the above dimensions is integral. To illustrate, in the case of refugees, for example, they are subjected to abandonment by countries and the international community (Mogstad, 2021). In cases concerning the elderly, abandonment involves “the desertion or willful forsaking of an elderly person or the permanent withdrawal of duties and obligations owed to an elderly person by a caregiver or other responsible person.” (Rzeszut 2017).

In terms of experience and impact, the displacement of communities is a form of abandonment. It involves the “separation from a place and, more specifically, the estrangement from home” which can be a “powerful source of human anxiety and can take many dramatic forms.” (Salerno 2003: 157). This and other types of abandonment are understood to lead to violent consequences (Davies et al., 2017) and thus call for intervention on the part of the state, society, communities, and individuals for the sake of survival, protection, and care of the ones being abandoned.

The Costs of Abandonment

Human rights studies highlight the adverse consequences of cases of abandonment. On the one hand, one can see the creation of human rights laws/standards to address abandonment concerns. On the other hand, human rights standards have been made less functional owing to abandonment-related fears.

Case-specific studies highlight the challenges posed by the fear of abandonment leading to non-reporting or withdrawal of complaints of physical and psychological violence. The following two studies can shed some light on this.

In an inquiry into the situation of domestic violence in South Africa, the inquiry group under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW 2019) found:

“Most victims do not report domestic violence or withdraw complaints because of shame, family or community pressure, etc. And many victims interviewed... experienced violence or abandonment by their mothers. They were also subjected to psychological violence with their partners isolating them from their families and friends, abandoning them and their children, etc.” (CEDAW 2019).

In another study on intimate partner violence (IPV), it was found,

"The degree to which individuals feel uncomfortable with closeness and the degree to which individuals worry about being abandoned have important implications for how they interact with their intimate partners and can contribute to understanding IPV. Women IPV victims with insecure attachment tend to be more tolerant of violence, so they are also more vulnerable to remaining in the abusive relationship because they tend to excuse the offender (Almeida et al 2023)."

This "fear of being abandoned" challenges the working of human rights laws and institutions. Vulnerable groups, as highlighted in several studies, continue to accept situations of violence owing to the fear of being abandoned. The fear directly obstructs the full and meaningful impact that laws dealing with elder abuse, domestic violence, forced marriage, etc. can have. The fear of being abandoned, in many ways, stands as one of the greatest costs borne by human rights.

As claimed, abandonment will also continue to challenge the human rights-based systems in the times to come (Rygaard 2021; Bhagat 2023). This theme makes a compelling case to consider the extent to which human rights laws are shaped by experiences of abandonment and the extent to which the fear of being abandoned prevents individuals from exploring human rights protections.

To what extent can studies in psychology determine the appropriateness of legal responses to abandonment? The answer certainly requires more theoretical and empirical investigations and both the fields of psychology and human rights can contribute in this direction.


Ali Bhagat, 2023, “Queer Global Displacement: Social Reproduction, Refugee Survival, and Organised Abandonment in Nairobi, Cape Town, and Paris, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.

CEDAW- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 2019, Inquiry concerning South Africa under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Heidi Mogstad, 2021, “Filling the Gaps: Citizen Humanitarianism in the Context of Crisis, Abandonment and Criminalization, in Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Elisa Pascucci (eds.), Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders (Routledge).

Inka Weissbecker, Peter Ventevogel, Fahmy Hanna (2020), and Soumitra Pathare, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Humanitarian Settings Considerations for Protecting and Promoting Human Rights”, in Neal S. Rubin and Roseanne L. Flores (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Psychology and Human Rights, at 380.

Iris Almeida, Carolina Nobre Joana Marques, Patricia Oliveira, 2023, “Violence against Women: Attachment, Psychopathology, and Beliefs in Intimate Partner Violence”, 12(6), 346 Social Sciences.

John Firman, Ann Gila, 1997, The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction and Growth.

Karen Lisa Greene, 2018, “Governing through Abandonment Rethinking Human Rights Culture through an Analysis of Child Rights Deployed in 1990s Cambodia”, International journal of children’s rights 26, 329-353.

Kathleen Hunt, Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages, Human Rights Watch.

Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Elisa Pascucci (eds.), 2021, Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders (Routledge).

Nancy M. Sidun and Yvette G. Flores (2020), “Human Trafficking Vulnerabilities, Human Rights Violations, and Psychological Consequences”, in in Neal S. Rubin and Roseanne L. Flores (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Psychology and Human Rights.

Niels Peter Rygaard, 2021, Climate Change, Migration, Urbanization, and the Mental Health of Children at Risk in the European Union: A Discussion of the Need for Large Scale Interventions, European Psychologist, 26(3), 204–211.

Roger A. Salerno, 2003, Landscapes of Abandonment: Capitalism, Modernity, and Estrangement, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Stephanie M. Rzeszut, 2017, “The Need for a Stronger Definition: Recognizing Abandonment as a Form of Elder Abuse Across the United States”, Family Court Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Thom Davies, Arshad Isakjee, Surindar Dhesi, 2017, Violent Inaction: The Necropolitical Experience of Refugees in Europe, Antipode Vol. 49 No. 5, pp. 1263–1284.

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