Unmasking the familiar faces of childhood violence

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, February 1st, 2018


Violence against children in all its forms, regardless of the nature or severity of the act, is harmful, morally indefensible and a violation of every child’s fundamental human rights. Recent research reveals that while violence is especially damaging during the first few years of life, it affects a child’s physical safety and emotional and cognitive well-being at every stage. As they grow older, girls and boys begin interacting with a wider array of people outside the home, including peers, teachers, neighbours and romantic partners. This broadening of a child’s social world represents an opportunity to build capacities and life skills – but it also opens the door to new forms of violence, with potentially irreversible or long-term consequences. Yet violence against children is often rationalized as necessary or inevitable. It may be tacitly accepted due to the familiarity of perpetrators, or minimized as inconsequential. The memory or reporting of violence may be buried due to shame or fear of reprisal. Impunity of perpetrators and prolonged exposure may leave victims believing violence is normal. In such ways, violence is masked, making it difficult to prevent and end.


The UNICEF publication “A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents” sheds light on four specific forms of violence that many children face from early childhood through adolescence: 1) Childhood experiences of physical force or verbal intimidation as forms of discipline. 2) Violence experienced by children while at school, including bullying, corporal punishment by teachers, attacks on schools and school shootings. 3) Violent deaths in adolescence, including new trend analyses. 4) Sexual violence, which children and adolescents experience in different settings and across the life cycle. Because the lives and futures of children are at stake, this report also suggests actions needed to be taken to tackle the different forms of violence against children.


Violent discipline at home is the most common form of violence experienced by children. While teaching children self-control and acceptable behaviour is an integral part of child rearing in all cultures, many caregivers use the violent methods, both physical and psychological, to punish unwanted behaviours and encourage desired ones. Close to 300 million (3 in 4) children aged 2 to 4 worldwide experience violent discipline by their caregivers on a regular basis; 250 million (around 6 in 10) are punished by physical means. Globally, around 1.1 billion (slightly more than 1 in 4) caregivers say that physical punishment is necessary to properly raise or educate children. Worldwide, 1 in 4 (176 million) children under age 5 live with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence. Based on data from 30 countries, 6 in 10 children aged 12 to 23 months are subjected to violent disciplinary methods.


For many children all over the world, the presence or threat of violence at school compromises their ability to fully benefit from educational opportunities. Once children enter school, friendships and interactions with peers have the potential to contribute to a child’s sense of well-being and social competence, but they are also associated with exposure to new forms of victimization – peer violence. School violence can also manifest as corporal punishment inflicted by teachers, sexual harassment from peers or school personnel. Worldwide, nearly130 million (slightly more than 1 in 3) students between the ages of 13 and 15 experience bullying. 732 million (1 in 2) school-age children between 6 and 17 years live in countries where corporal punishment at school is not fully prohibited. Analyses of data from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam reveal that violence in schools, including physical and verbal abuse by teachers and by other students, is the most common reason children expressed for disliking school, and is significantly associated with lower scores in mathematics, self-efficacy and self-esteem.


As children move through adolescence, they begin to spend increasing amounts of time in an ever-expanding social environment within and beyond their immediate networks, interacting with a wider array of people. This widening of the social world, while beneficial in many respects, also creates situations in which children may be exposed to new forms of violence. Every 7 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent is killed by an act of violence. In 2015 alone, violence took the lives of around 82,000 adolescents worldwide. Those aged 15 to 19 are particularly vulnerable, being three times more likely to die violently than younger adolescents aged 10 to 14.


Sexual violence in childhood and adolescence is another big problem which can affect children at all ages and in different settings. While both boys and girls can be the target of sexual violence, data suggest that girls are generally at a heightened risk. There is often a perception that sexual violence is a relatively rare occurrence, and when most people think about this type of violence, they envision rape by a stranger. However, available data reveal that children in many places are at greatest risk of exposure to sexual violence within the context of close relationships such as those with family, friends and intimate partners. In Mexico, in a survey conducted in 2013, 7 per cent of boys and 5 per cent of girls in upper secondary school reported that they had experienced sexual insults from their classmates at school during the past 12 months, and 4 per cent of boys and 3 per cent of girls had been forced into sexual behaviour. In the United States, a 2011 online survey of students in grades 7 to 12 revealed that nearly half reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment, in-person or via electronic means, over the course of a school year committed by anyone they knew through school.


Protecting children against violence is a path towards more peaceful and inclusive societies which will take individual and collective action. This well-documented UNICEF publication suggests a few specific actions and strategies for ending violence against children: 1) Coherent and well-coordinated national plans and subsequent action are needed to reduce the persistently high rates of violence against both girls and boys from early childhood through adolescence. 2) Governments need to strengthen the legal and policy frameworks that protect children from the various forms of violence, exploitation and abuse they face throughout childhood, including corporal punishment in all settings, even in the home, and by all perpetrators, including teachers and other school personnel. 3) Given the growing importance of virtual communication in the lives of children and adolescents, national policies and programmes to reduce bullying by peers should address both online and offline communities. At the same time, education systems should strengthen their gender-responsive policies to foster safer learning environments for girls and boys alike. 4) Making communities safer and fostering protective environments for children and adolescents is critical. To achieve this, national policies should focus on violence prevention strategies including limiting access to firearms and other weapons.


The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

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