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Children At Risk From A Known Enemy

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From babyhood to adulthood, children are exposed to many forms of violence, no matter where they live.

Black adolescent boys in the United States are 19 times more likely to die than white boys of the same age, and face a similar risk of dying as their peers in the conflict zones of South Sudan. Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest child murder rates in the world. Around 300 million two-to-four-year-olds globally will experience physical punishment or verbal abuse by their parents or caretakers. And at least 15 million girls will have been sexually abused or raped by their 19th birthdays.

These are just some of the alarming findings of two wide-ranging global reports on violence against children. Both reports point to two major challenges: getting countries to gather better data on the various types of violence against children, which so often happens inside the home and/or by people known to the children, and taking steps to put an end to it.

There are still big gaps in knowledge, with many countries completely in the dark about the extent to which their child citizens are victims of violence. Even countries with better statistics have no idea how much corporal punishment happens in homes for example, or of the extent to which boys experience physical and sexual violence. All too often, violence against children is shrouded in secrecy.

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Know Violence in Childhood, a global initiative to end violence against children, released a detailed report informed by 44 research papers, thousands of articles, reports and other sources. Although the report presents a global picture, the authors state that “reliable data on inter-personal violence in childhood are difficult to obtain. This is partly because such violence takes place within relationships and is hidden by a strong culture of silence”. And many children and women are reluctant to report violence because of the stigma and fear of repercussions.

UNICEF’s report, A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents, builds on their seminal 2014 report on child violence statistics, Hidden in Plain Sight, which compiled data from 190 countries. Their new report contains updated statistics and analysis and notes that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include targets to wipe out violence against children by 2030, offer the potential get better data on the crimes, ensure that monitoring takes place, that countries are held to account and most importantly, that they take proactive steps to stop it.

Although much more information is now available on violence against children than it was a few years ago, the gaps make it hard to compare countries with each other and for states to report and measure their progress on the SDGs.

Goal 5 (gender equality) and Goal 16 (peace) contain specific targets aimed at stopping violence against children but many of the other goals indirectly address some of the drivers of this violence too, including poverty, lack of education and poor health.

Nevertheless, if more progress is not made and if current trends continue, “close to two million children and adolescents could be killed by an act of violence by the year 2030”, warn the authors of the UNICEF report. And whether violence ends in death or not, the effects of pervasive and various forms of abuse throughout childhood have an insidious impact on society in general, says Know Violence Global Co-Chair A.K. Shiva Kumar.

“From severe physical punishment to sexual abuse to homicide, childhood violence damages individuals, families and communities in both rich countries and poor, with a cost in trillions of dollars a year.”

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Violence against children is closely tied up with violence against women. Children who see their mothers abused will more likely perpetrate violence themselves, warn the experts.

Childhood violence occurs in many forms – corporal punishment in the home and at school; physical, sexual and emotional abuse by adults or peers.

“Beyond the immediate physical damage it causes, exposure to violence can traumatize children, harm school performance, lead to depression and other illnesses, and increase the chances that young people will become the victims or perpetrators of violence in the future,” say the Know Violence in Childhood authors.

The UNICEF report cites an emerging body of research that shows the toxic effects of violence and other trauma on the developing brains of children in the first 1,000 days of their lives.

Violence not only threatens children’s physical safety but their cognitive and emotional development too. This is particularly disturbing given that data from 30 countries showed that nearly half of all one-to-two-year-olds were verbally abused or received corporal punishment.

Online violence is another emerging category of violence as more and more children around the world gain access to the Internet. Online bullying, harassment, sexual extortion and “grooming” for sex and child pornography are now the shadow side of increasing interconnectedness between children and their peers or with adult strangers, including those in far-flung parts of the globe.

READ MORE: The Dark Side Of Social Media

Yet there is still a great deal of public ignorance about the many forms of violence that children experience. According to the UNICEF report, “Despite a growing awareness of the global nature of violence against children, the misconception that it is relatively rare persists. Media reporting typically focuses on extreme cases, such as death or rape. And while such tragedies, thankfully, are relatively uncommon, other acts of violence are not.” The authors also conclude that two out of three violent acts against children and adolescents are inter-personal rather than a result of broader conflict or civil unrest.

Although both reports make the point that violence happens across all economic strata, in rich and poor countries, low-income and high-income families, three regions in Africa nevertheless take the top three spots in tables compiled by Know Violence in Childhood for 2015: West and Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Middle East and North Africa. These regions have the highest combined totals for the following categories: corporal punishment; bullying and physical fights; physical and sexual violence against girls; and child homicide. Although Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest rate of child murder, the other forms of violence are far lower in these regions. Industrialized countries have the lowest rates of all these categories combined. Another statistic shows that sexual violence against girls is worst in Eastern and Southern Africa, followed by West and Central Africa and Middle East and North Africa.

So what steps do experts recommend for taking steps to end the many forms of violence against children? As UNICEF says, “It will take individual and collective action to right this global wrong.” Measures must be taken at state, community and inter-personal levels, say the experts. Outlawing violence is a first step. So far, only 60 of 193 UN member states prohibit corporal punishment in the home. In schools, corporal punishment is either partly or fully illegal in roughly 130 countries.

Other steps include addressing the socio-economic conditions that perpetuate the violence such as unemployment, poverty, substance abuse and the like. And hopefully the SDGs will help build public awareness and pressure countries to come on board with clear efforts to prevent it.

Raising awareness in communities and among parents and caregivers on the rights of children and on the toxic effects of violence against them, as well as helping them find different strategies to manage children’s behavior, are among the recommendations the Know Violence in Childhood report makes.

Tackling hierarchical school systems that allow corporal punishment and other violence such as bullying is another. UNICEF is partnering with school programs to help teachers use strategies that promote better behavior rather than resort to punishment. The organization, a partner in the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, has also developed a program called INSPIRE, which aims to spread awareness around programs that have been shown to work.

And, despite the downside of so many children being online, there is an upside too: technology can also protect children, with online awareness raising campaigns or mobile phone map applications, for example, that can help keep them safe.

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