This module is a resource for lecturers  


Topic one - The many forms of violence against children


Violence against children (VAC) takes many forms. It is interesting to compare the broad definition of violence provided in the CRC (GA Resolution 44/25, Article 19) to the definitions found in your country's laws and policies, because the all-encompassing definition of violence may differ from common usage or even legal usage in your country.  

VAC occurs in various contexts, in the family, at school, in public, in armed conflict situations, and even across borders. Examples include: abuse and neglect in the family, incest, sexual abuse, infanticide; bullying and other forms of violence in the school; corporal punishment; psychological aggression; child trafficking, sale of children, child sexual exploitation and other commercial sexual exploitation of children; child labour; various forms of cyber and online violence; recruitment as child soldiers, children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups, and many others. This list is not exhaustive. Materials from the local media (news article, clips from television reporting) will reveal the kind of VAC that is currently attracting attention at the local or national level - but lecturers should note that not all forms of violence against children are brought to public attention. Indeed, part of the reason that violence against children proves such an enduring problem is because it is not always brought to the attention of authorities, and in some cases, reports to authorities result in inaction, or further violence against children. For more detail on this, see Module 13 on Justice for Children in the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Ending violence against children is part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize that VAC is an impediment to sustainable development and acknowledges the importance of ending it. Has this contributed to a greater awareness of the issue in your country?

Source: Sustainable Development Goals

You may find that, in your own country, the available data on VAC is very limited. Because so much of the violence takes place in private places, it is unreported or it otherwise remains invisible. There are many challenges associated with measuring the prevalence of VAC and determining who are the children that are most vulnerable.Authorities do not always have in place the necessary systems to gather that information and produce reliable statistics. A lack of data hinders efforts to reveal and understand the pervasive nature of VAC and limits the effectiveness of initiatives to prevent it. While there are limitations to data on the various forms of violence against children, existing statistics indicate that VAC is pervasive (UNICEF, 2014; 2014a; 2014b; 2016; 2017; UNODC, 2018). The following graphic illustrates the global prevalence of certain types of violence against children - clearly illustrating that corporal punishment is the most prevalent form of violence against children.

Figure 1: Global burden of violence against children, 2015

Source: Know Violence in Childhood (2017). Ending Violence in Childhood: Global Report . Know Violence in Childhood. New Delhi, p. 17.

In 2012, almost one in five homicide victims worldwide were under the age of 20. Violence is the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally (UNICEF, 2014b). Although all children are vulnerable to physical violence, different factors affect their relative risk of exposure to different forms of violence. For example, young children are generally most vulnerable to serious injury from physical violence, with fatal cases often found among infants. Similarly, adolescents may be at greater risk of homicide in communities affected by armed violence (SRSG, 2016). It is estimated that somewhere in the world, every seven minutes, an adolescent is killed by an act of violence; those aged 15 to 19 are particularly vulnerable, being three times more likely to die violently than younger adolescents aged ten to 14 (UNICEF, 2017).

Figure 2: Magnitude of violence against children

Source: INSPIRE (2016). Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children: Infographic. Luxembourg: World Health Organization.

In the critical early years of a child's development, violence carries very heavy consequences. Unfortunately, despite the prohibition of these forms of violence in international law, violent discipline, neglect, and psychological abuses remain frequent. A large percentage of children between two and four years of age experience violent forms of discipline at home (UNICEF, 2017a; 2018). Infants' survival is most at risk during their first year because they are particularly vulnerable and totally dependent on adults (UNICEF, 2018). A high level of co-occurrence between violence against women and violence against children has been observed (UNICEF, 2018). Worldwide, one in four children under age five lives with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence (UNICEF, 2017) and children who witness an incident of violence against parents are themselves at greater risk of victimization. It appears that greater numbers of children experience harsher physical discipline in households where women experienced intimate partner violence (Bott et al., 2012).

Gender-based discrimination places girls at high risk of violence. The use of corporal punishment against younger adolescent girls is widespread. Globally, almost 70 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 report having been victims of some form of physical violence since their fifteenth birthday. As many as 120 million girls under the age of 20 have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other involuntary sexual acts, and 84 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have been victims of emotional, physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners at some point in their lives (UNICEF, 2014). A significant proportion of adolescent girls were first-time victims of sexual violence before age 15 (UNICEF, 2014b). Violence against indigenous girls, adolescents and young women is a particular source of concern and cannot be separated from the wider contexts of discrimination and exclusion to which indigenous peoples as a whole are often exposed in social, economic, cultural and political life (UNICEF, UN Women, UNFPA, ILO, and SRSG, 2013).  

According to the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children (SRSG): "Harmful attitudes toward girls are also reflected in the fact that, every year, three million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation or cutting, despite legislation in many countries prohibiting this practice. Furthermore, as many as 14 million girls are forcibly married, often to much older men. Forced marriage places girls at high risk of sexual abuse and other serious forms of violence" (2015, p. 4).

Regrettably, the majority of VAC cases go unnoticed, unaddressed or, at times, ignored by the criminal justice system. When the criminal justice system intervenes, many of these girls risk being stigmatized, punished and revictimized rather than receiving the assistance and support they require (SRSG, 2015). For further materials on violence against girls, see Module 10 on Violence Against Women and Girls.

In addition to the concerning co-occurrence of violence against women and violence against children, it should also be noted that children often endure multiple and intersecting forms of child maltreatment (often referred to as multi-type maltreatment). This can include the co-occurrence of other forms of harm, including from peers or exposure to broader societal violence (i.e. polyvictimization) (for an overview of these concepts, see: Price-Robertson, Higgins & Vassallo, 2013).

One of the most common forms of physical violence that children and adolescents experience, according to most available data, occurs within the context of discipline - usually in their own homes, and at the hands of their caregivers (UNICEF, 2017). Globally, three in four children aged two to four worldwide experience violent discipline by their caregivers on a regular basis; six in ten children are punished by physical means (UNICEF, 2017, p. 19). Violent discipline also takes place in schools: one in two school-age children between six and 17 years live in countries where corporal punishment at school is not fully prohibited (UNICEF, 2017). The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines "corporal" or "physical" punishment as "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light" (2006, para. 11). Corporal punishment in schools is highly prevalent, even when legally prohibited, with younger children, boys and poor children at greater risk. This form of violence is associated with poorer cognitive development outcomes, psychological wellbeing and school adaptation (Ogandon Portela and Pells, 2015; Jones and Pells, 2016).

Violence in school takes many forms, including violent discipline, bullying, attacks on schools during conflict, kidnapping of children in school, school shootings, etc. (UNICEF, 2017). The impact of violence in schools goes beyond the children who are directly affected by it. It creates an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity incompatible with learning (SRSG, 2016a). Globally, half of students aged 13 to 15, about 150 million, report experiencing peer-to-peer violence in and around school (UNICEF 2018a). Some international data suggest that over half of children, on average, report bullying violence at school (Richardson and Fen Hiu, 2016). Cyberbullying is also a concern as children obtain greater access to communication technology (Livingstone, Stoila and Kelly, 2016; UNICEF, 2017b). There seems to be a strong link between online bullying and in person bullying. Girls and boys are equally at risk for bullying, but boys are more likely to experience physical violence and threats, whereas girls are more likely to face psychological or relational forms of bullying (UNICEF, 2017b).

In the digital age, children are exposed to new threats. Online interactions are not always accompanied by the traditional protections placed around children (UNICEF, 2017b; SRSG, 2014b). In addition to the usual means by which sexual abuse of children is perpetrated, children now face risks of sexual abuse that is technologically facilitated. A 2015 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2015) shows that new information communication technologies (ICTs) can increase access to victims and to child sexual abuse material, increase profits for criminal enterprises, reduce risk of identification and prosecution for perpetrators, provide social affirmation for offenders and increase levels of harm for victims. For further information on interpersonal cybercrime, including how this impacts children, please refer to Module 12 on Interpersonal Cybercrime in the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime.

Armed conflicts also increase the incidence of violence against children. In addition, children are also frequently recruited and exploited by armed groups and terrorist and violent extremist groups (UNODC, 2017). They are also victims of extreme violence during their association with these groups, including ferocious recruitment methods, exposure to constant fear, sexual exploitation, psychological pressure, and various forms of physical injuries. Recruited and exploited children are often killed during hostilities. Contrary to general belief, girls are also increasingly being recruited and exploited by these groups (UNODC, 2017).

Globally, 28 per cent of all detected victims of human trafficking are children. They are trafficked for various forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, organ removal, forced marriage, or as child soldiers. Girls constitute 20 per cent of detected victims of human trafficking globally (UNODC, 2016). For further materials on the trafficking of children refer to the E4J University Module Series on Trafficking in Persons, particularly Module 12 on children in trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.

In every society, there are groups of children that are especially vulnerable to violence and in need of special protection. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has drawn attention to the need for particular vigilance when it comes to various marginalized groups, by providing an extensive list of children in potential vulnerable situations (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2011, para. 72). Especially vulnerable children include, among many others, children: not living with their biological parents, but in various forms of alternative care; not registered at birth; in street situations; in actual or perceived conflict with the law; with disabilities, with chronic illnesses or serious behavioural problems; who are indigenous or from other ethnic minorities; or who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI). Greater vigilance and enhanced protection measures are therefore required when it comes to protecting these children.

In addition, as noted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011), children in emergencies (social and armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies) are also extremely vulnerable to violence. Children who are on the move as migrants or refugees, or who are displaced, are at risk of some of the worst forms of abuse and harm. They can easily fall victim to traffickers and other criminals and are often subjected to extreme forms of abuse and deprivation during their journeys (UNICEF, 2016a; 2018b).  

Further, it is important to note that children who come into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system also face serious risks of violence, at all stages, including during the course of law enforcement and legal proceedings, detention, rehabilitation and reintegration (SRSG, 2012). There are various reasons for children's involvement in the legal proceedings as suspects, accused, convicted individuals, victims, or witnesses. By virtue of their developmental stage, and their deprivation of liberty, children are vulnerable to violence as a result of their contact with investigators, prosecutors, court and prison officials. Contacts with the criminal justice system can be particularly problematic for certain groups of children, for example children with disabilities (Williams, 2012; British Psychological Society, 2015), exposing them to a greater risk of violence within that system. Further detail on the risks of violence faced by children in contact with the law is provided in Module 13 on Justice for Children. In addition, concrete examples of violence against children in the criminal justice system can be found in the joint report published in 2012 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNODC and the SRSG on " prevention of and responses to violence against children within the juvenile justice system". The SRSG's 2015 report on " Safeguarding the rights of girls in the criminal justice system: Preventing violence, stigmatization and deprivation of liberty" is also very instructive.

Next: Topic two - The impact of violence on children
Back to top