An estimated 120 million girls are sexually abused by their twentieth birthday. That means roughly one out of every ten girls in the world face sexual violence before becoming adults.
It is one of the shocking facts revealed in a new report on violence children face, by the United Nations’ Children’s rights and emergency relief organization (UNICEF). The report finds that children are exposed to violence both directly and indirectly at a very young age. One out of every three children between 13 and 15 are bullied. Then there is the fact that 80% of children between the ages of 2 and 14 are ‘subjected to some kind of violent discipline in the home.’ Hidden in Plain Sight brings together data on violence from 190 countries to provide a picture of what children face today.
“These are uncomfortable facts — no government or parent will want to see them,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, in a release. “But unless we confront the reality each infuriating statistic represents — the life of a child whose right to a safe, protected childhood has been violated — we will never change the mind-set that violence against children is normal and permissible. It is neither.”
While the discussion is global, the majority of the focus is on low- and middle-income countries. The report recognizes that violence against children occurs everywhere, not just poor countries. The data used is based largely on health surveys conducted by various groups and UNICEF itself. There are some estimates, but the collected information is meant to be the base point for the issue. It is likely the true numbers are higher.
Standing out is the fact that it is the people who care for the children that are most likely to commit the violent acts against them. By putting data behind the problem, UNICEF hopes to raise attention in order for steps to be taken to reduce violence against children.
“While often regarded as an individual problem, violence against children is, in fact, a societal problem, driven by economic and social inequities and poor education standards. It is fueled by social norms that condone violence as an acceptable way to resolve conflicts, sanction adult domination over children and encourage discrimination,” says the report.
One of the major challenges is attitudes toward violence. More than half of all boys between 15 and 19 in Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia believe that there are circumstances where it is just for a husband to hit his wife. It is not just an attitude held by men. Nearly half of the 60 countries with data on both boys and girls found that “a larger proportion of girls than boys believe wife-beating is sometimes justified.” That is why UNICEF is focusing on the social norms that make violence an acceptable action.
The report sets six strategies that can be implemented to prevent and respond to violence against children. They include changing attitudes and norms, stricter laws that protect children, and more support for families. The good news is that some countries are already putting these recommendations in action. Some teachers in Uruguay were trained in detecting and reporting cases of sexual abuse against children. Palestine launched a non-violent discipline in schools policy last year. And Malawi has hundreds of support units for child victims of sexual and physical violence.
“Everyday violence may be pervasive, but it is not inevitable,” writes report author Jeffrey O’Malley.