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Topic four - Improving the prevention of violence against children


A comprehensive approach to preventing violence against children is required. The justice system can play a role but many other sectors must be involved. Strategies are most effective when implemented as part of a comprehensive, multisectoral approach. Stakeholders in many countries are working to eliminate violence against children, but their efforts are not always well coordinated and supported.

A broad prevention framework has been developed by the World Health Organization in collaboration with UNICEF, UNODC and other organizations of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children (INSPIRE, 2016; 2018). It focuses on seven strategies for addressing violence, abuse and exploitation: (1) implementation and enforcement of laws (e.g. laws criminalizing all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, including online); (2) norms and values (changing adherence to restrictive and harmful gender and social norms, including through community mobilization programmes); (3) safe environments (e.g. reducing violence by addressing 'hotspots" and improving the built environment); (4) parent and caregiver support; (5) income and economic strengthening; (6) response and support services; and, (7) education and life skills (INSPIRE, 2016).

With respect to the role of the justice system, the United Nations Model Strategies (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18) identify different types of prevention strategies: (1) the prohibition by law of all forms of VAC, including the criminalization of many serious forms of violence; (2) the development of effective and context specific violence prevention programmes; and, (3) challenging the ways in which VAC is condoned or tolerated. In fact, preventing violence against children requires a major shift in what societies regard as acceptable practice.

The prohibition of VAC (law reform and criminalization of serious forms of VAC) forms the bedrock of a comprehensive strategy. There must be a sound legal framework that prohibits VAC and empowers authorities to prevent and respond appropriately to incidents of violence. One must ensure the prohibition of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment of children in all settings. The law must include a clear and comprehensive prohibition, including criminalization, of all forms of violence against children. The United Nations Model Strategies (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18) explicitly call for the criminalization of various forms of violence against children, including: engaging in sexual activities with a child using coercion, force or threats, abusing a position of trust, authority or influence over a child, including within the family, and abusing a child who is particularly vulnerable because of a mental or physical disability or a situation of dependence; committing sexual violence against a child, including sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment through or facilitated by the use of new information technologies, including the Internet; the sale of or trafficking in children for any purpose and in any form; offering, delivering or accepting, by whatever means, a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation of the child, transfer of organs of the child for profit or engagement of the child in forced labour; offering, obtaining, procuring or providing a child for child prostitution; producing, distributing, disseminating, importing, exporting, offering, selling or possessing child pornography; slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage and serfdom and forced labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; and, committing gender-related violence against a child and, in particular, gender-related killing of girls (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 11).

In some instances, the criminalization of the conduct is already required by the CRC or by another convention or protocol to which a State may be a party. For example, Article 35 of the CRC (GA Resolution 44/25) states that: "States Parties shall take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form", and similar criminalization requirements are found in Article 1 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (A/RES/54/263), supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (GA Resolution 55/25), Article 18 of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (2007) , or Article 3 of the International Labour Organization Convention No. 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (2000).

Legislative reform also involves the removal from national legislation of any legal provisions that justify or allow for consent to harmful practices against children (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 10b). It also involves ensuring that resorting to informal justice systems does not jeopardize children's rights or preclude child victims from accessing the formal justice system (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 10c).

As is regularly confirmed by research, countless number of girls and boys fall victim to harmful practices undertaken under different pretexts or grounds, including female genital mutilation or cutting, forced marriage, breast ironing and witchcraft rituals (SRSG, 2015). Some of these practices are justified and supported by traditional justice systems. Harmful traditional practices against children must be prohibited by law, including detailed provisions in relevant legislation to secure the effective protection of girls and boys from those practices, to provide means of redress and to fight impunity.

Norms can condone violent punishment as a necessary part of child-rearing, or violence as an acceptable response to conflict in a community. Norms also affect help seeking for violence: "norms that reinforce male sexual entitlement and power, or prioritize family privacy or reputation, can lead to victim blaming and discourage both girls and boys from disclosing violence or seeking help" (INSPIRE, 2018). It is therefore important to devise and adopt measures to address the social acceptance or tolerance of violence against children. Creative approaches must be found to challenge the many ways in which violence against children is tolerated. Targeted activities are required to challenge attitudes that condone or normalize violence against children, including the tolerance and acceptance of corporal punishment and harmful practices or the acceptance of violence (UNODC 2015a). Lecturers may find it productive to contemplate whether there is evidence that violent practices against children are still tolerated in their own country.

It is also necessary to review and revise all laws (including criminal procedure law) to remove all provisions that justify, allow for, or condone VAC or may increase the risk of violence against children (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 9). The report of the SRSG on VAC on " Protecting Children from Harmful Practices in Plural Legal Systems with a Special Emphasis on Africa" (2012), refers explicitly to the importance of safeguarding the supremacy of human rights standards and the need for States to ensure that "domestic legislation relevant to children's protection from violence and harmful practices, foreseen in statute, customary or religious laws, is in full conformity with human rights standards" (2012, p. 40). The same report also recommends legislation to ensure the investigation of such incidents and establish the accountability of perpetrators of harmful practices against children, including those advising, attempting to, aiding or condoning those practices.

Finally, the prevention of VAC must be identified as a crime prevention priority. Prevention measures, building on a growing understanding of factors that give rise to violence against children and addressing the risks of violence to which children are exposed, should be part of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate violence against children (United Nations, 2014, Article 12). Criminal justice agencies, working together with child protection, social welfare, health and education agencies and civil society organizations, have an important role to play in developing effective violence prevention programmes (UNODC, 2015a). There is a general need to strengthen the existing child protection and justice system to help create a protective environment for children. Child protection agencies must be encouraged to work collaboratively with the criminal justice system. In many instances, collaboration protocols are necessary to facilitate ongoing interagency cooperation.

National and local governments must exercise their leadership in developing effective crime prevention initiatives and in creating and maintaining an institutional framework for their implementation and review. For this, it is necessary to identify the specific vulnerabilities and risks faced by children in different situations and to adopt proactive measures to reduce those risks and take appropriate actions to support and protect all children. In particular, specific prevention measures are necessary to protect children who belong to especially vulnerable groups. For further materials on crime prevention, including developmental crime prevention, see Module 2 in the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

It is possible to identify groups of children who are particularly exposed to the risk of violence. For example: children working or living on the streets, children with disabilities, children suffering from mental illness, children of minority groups, unaccompanied children, migrant children, children who are refugees or asylum seekers, indigenous children, children living with HIV/AIDS, children with substance abuse problems, children engaged in survival behaviours (e.g. prostitution), children of incarcerated parents, or children exposed to violence and harassment due to their sexual identity.

Children must have a voice in the development of prevention strategies. The Committee on the Rights of the Child explained that:

"(…) the voices of children have increasingly become a powerful force in the prevention of child rights violations. Good practice examples are available, inter alia, in the fields of violence prevention in schools, combating child exploitation through hazardous and extensive labour, providing health services and education to street children, and in the juvenile justice system. Children should be consulted in the formulation of legislation and policy related to these and other problem areas and involved in the drafting, development and implementation of related plans and programmes" (2009, para. 118).

Next: Topic five - Improving the criminal justice response to VAC
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