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Complexity, prevalence of violence affecting children revealed in multi-country study

2/3 experience violence at home; risk factors in school, home, community
08 Feb 2017
Sexual violence against children Viet Nam

(8 February 2017) New findings by UNICEF Innocenti and its partners present a clearer picture of the main drivers of physical, sexual and emotional violence affecting children across four countries. The  Cross Country Snapshot of Findings from UNICEF Innocenti’s   studyon the drivers of violence affecting children examines the way individual characteristics, relationships, communities, institutions and structural factors increase or reduce a child’s experience of violence in Italy, Peru, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe.

An important priority of the study is increased understanding of effective national strategies for preventing child violence. It is being conducted in collaboration with the  University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford's  Young Lives longitudinal study, UNICEF country offices, key ministries, national researchers and practitioners.    

“There is increasing data indicating that violence is prevalent across societies but if we can’t understand what’s behind that violence and what’s driving it, then we’ll never solve the problem of preventing it. This is research that intends to drive change,” said  Catherine Maternowska, UNICEF Innocenti child protection specialist and lead researcher on the project.

“The study never forgets that these four countries have historical, political and social stories and events that shape everyday life. When you analyse the risk factors in the context of a country’s ‘social ecology,’ you start to understand the complexity of this phenomena.” 

“We wanted to use existing national data—as an alternative model to large scale and often expensive surveys. A key aspect of the study is building on existing data: it has already been collected, and has so much more to tell us if we ask the right questions!” The process involved a systematic literature review of academic papers, a secondary analysis of 10 national data sets and a preliminary mapping of each country’s violence intervention strategies. More than 500 research studies were reviewed.

Emerging findings

Sexual violence  – Girls are much more likely to experience sexual violence than boys; however, boys are also affected yet they are far less likely to be asked about sexual violence in surveys. Lifetime prevalence of any sexual violence among girls is 18 per cent in Zimbabwe, 13 per cent in Peru and 6 per cent in Italy.

Physical violence  – Boys and girls experience comparable rates of physical violence at home or in school. Estimates from primary analyses of national data sets show that approximately 1 in 2 children in Peru have been beaten with objects such as belts and sticks at home and 3 in 5 boys and half of girls in Zimbabwe experience physical violence at the hands of a parent or adult prior to the age of 18. Based on Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys roughly 2 in 3 children aged 1 – 14 years have experienced violent discipline in the home in Viet Nam and Zimbabwe in the previous month. 

Emotional violence  – Although more difficult to define and measure, the Cross Country Snapshot also tracks the prevalence of emotional violence affecting children. In Peru, more than 2 in 3 children (69 per cent) reported experiencing peer to peer psychological violence in their lives. In Viet Nam almost 60 per cent of children under 14 years have witnessed psychological aggression in the home. In Zimbabwe more than a third of children report experiencing emotional violence.  In Italy, 19 per cent of children assisted by social services had witnessed domestic violence. Emotional violence can be perpetrated by various actors: parents, peers, siblings and teachers.

Violence at home

According to nationally representative surveys from the four countries, violent discipline in the home is widespread across the countries and contributes to a heightened risk of violence at school, the community and online. From two thirds to three quarters of children report violent discipline in the home. In Peru 3 out of 4 parents reported using verbal punishment as a main form of punishment. In Italy, two thirds of parents reported using corporal punishment against their child during the last month. In Viet Nam and Zimbabwe 69 per cent and 63 per cent respectively, of children aged 1 – 14 years reported witnessing violent discipline in the last month.

Violent schools

Schools are found to be a significant setting where children are exposed to multiple forms of violence from corporal punishment to bullying. Data from the Young Lives longitudinal study conducted by the University of Oxford show that between 20 and 30 per cent of children in Peru and Viet Nam respectively were beaten by their teachers. Corporal punishment at age 8 is linked to lower math scores in Peru and lower self-esteem in Viet Nam at age 15.

Fluid and shifting influences

Violence emerges as a complex socio-economic phenomenon – not merely as an interaction between child and individual – but rather as a fluid and shifting influence in children’s lives as they move between the home, the school and the community interacting with an array of peers and adults. The findings make it difficult to compare violence affecting children in various national contexts due to the differences in cultural, historical and political realities.   

Understanding, for example, what drives violence against a 7-year old boy may be quite different than that which affects a 14-year old girl, with different societal and individual consequences. The role of power impacts heavily on this process and can shift in both positive and negative ways as children grow-up.

Research shows that violent behaviour is passed through generations and is learned through childhood. Addressing unequal power dynamics in the home, school and community is central to effective violence prevention strategies.

Mapping the ecology of violence

Researchers and policy makers are seldom able to fully address the complex risk factors and drivers of violence in children’s lives. The new findings help to establish a socio ecological framework to better map the factors that increase or decrease a child’s likelihood of experiencing violence.

Major drivers of violence at the structural level include rapid national transition accompanied by economic fluctuation, instability, poverty and migration both within and between countries which may increase the risk of sexual and physical exploitation and abuse. Children’s vulnerabilities to violence also arise as a result of institutional drivers including ineffective child protection systems, weak school governance and harmful cultural and social norms.

Community risk factors identified in the study include harmful cultural practices and social norms and in some cases the code of silence that exists around violence. Interpersonal risk factors take into account family structures and contexts including marital status, parents’ histories of abuse, education and family stress among others. Individual risk factors include vulnerabilities due to age, ethnicity and disability and beliefs about gender roles and the acceptability of violence.

Violence affecting children encompasses a spectrum of forms, including physical, sexual and emotional maltreatment which comprise the three main priorities of the Innocenti multi country study.

Local ownership of research

A fundamental aspect of the Multi-Country Study is local institutional ownership of data and policy outcomes. In several cases important national legislation and policy advocacy resulted only after participating governments and research partners took ‘ownership’ of the data on violence affecting children, providing a vital aspect of understanding what drives violence against children in their countries.

“It was a human-centred, bottom-up [data gathering] approach exhaustively compiled and built on existing research led by national actors,” said Maternowska. “That is crucial because national teams analysed  and interpreted their data- there was no exporting the data or telling them what a number means.”

“We localized the research process. Countries took ownership and in doing so are also now taking responsibility for solving the challenge of violence.”