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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
Sexual violence against children Viet Nam

Phuong Anh [name changed] and her mother sitting at their home in Ninh Thuan province, Viet Nam. Phuong Anh, a 14 year old girl, is the victim of sexual abuse.  

(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.” 

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(21 November 2016) Physical and emotional violence are pervasive and largely accepted aspects of children’s lives, according to a set of recently published studies. Interviews with children and their caregivers over nearly a decade in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam provide researchers with important new insights on the way violence impacts children as they grow up. The new findings have been published in the “Understanding Children’s Experiences of Violence” series of working papers produced by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Young Lives research initiative. The papers comprise the latest evidence to emerge from UNICEF’s Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children.“Violence is pervasive in children’s lives – impacting them in the family, in schools, and in the community – and this research, based on interviews with the same children over many years, paints a clearer picture of the intergenerational transmission of violence,” said Catherine Maternowska, UNICEF Innocenti’s lead researcher on the project.“Understanding how violence affects children as they move through childhood, adolescence and later into young adulthood, gives us important insights into change in a child’s capacities and in the environments where they live, sleep, study and play”. The new papers reveal unique aspects of the way children from four very different corners of the world perceive and cope with violence. A number of issues also appear to be in common among them as well. Violence is clearly linked to economic shocks in the family, such as death, illness or loss of a job. In Viet Nam children perceived economic hardship as the cause of increased tension and stress leading to more exposure to violence at home. In Peru, children were more often exposed to exploitative child labor and instances of neglect when families had to cope with loss of economic resources.In all four countries, parents and children both articulated the perception that violence is an acceptable or even necessary tool for shaping good behaviour and values. In Peru, children subjected to violence expect to raise their children the same way. In Ethiopia, violence was viewed as an acceptable way to instill a culture of hard work and discipline. In India, violence was articulated by some as an acceptable way to deal with ‘transgressions’ committed by young women and girls. At the same time, children express how they suffer under these often-unbearable conditions. Violence, according to children across all four countries, is a normal consequence of failing to meet responsibilities in the home and at school—linking two important spheres in children’s lives. In India almost all children experienced corporal punishment in school. In Viet Nam, children feared being beaten by their parents for poor grades on school exams. In Ethiopia, violence was often experienced as a result of failing to perform agricultural chores properly. Experiences of violence change depending on age, gender and setting. In India girls and young women commonly experience sexual harassment referred to as ‘eve-teasing’ in public ranging from verbal taunts to groping. In Ethiopia, boys are far more likely to report instances of physical violence at home while girls reported insults and harassment by boys in the community. In Viet Nam, the strong social preference for boy children put women and girls at greater risk of violence.Qualitative research conducted by Young Lives addressed children’s well-being, their experiences of transitions (for example, changing schools), and their time-use and daily experiences. Multiple qualitative research methods were used including one-to-one interviews, group discussions and creative activities (such as drawings of a child ‘doing well’ or ’doing badly’), and body mapping carried out in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2014.In Ethiopia between 130 and 150 interviews were conducted with children and caregivers in each round. In India some 400 children and caregivers were interviewed in each round. In Viet Nam 72 children and caregivers were interviewed in each round. In Peru 100 children and caregivers participated in the interviews.A highly important component of the Understanding Children’s Experiences of Violence series is the documentation of children’s narratives over time, as children enter into adulthood. In some cases children participating in the study were married by the time of the most recent round of interviews was completed. These narratives provide powerful new documentation which can help direct more effective interventions. Ravi’s story from the India qualitative interviews provides a good example. As a small child, Ravi witnessed his father beating his mother and he attempted to intervene. He also went on to try and protect his sister from her violent husband. At age 13 Ravi told researchers: “When my mum and dad fight I feel very bad. When my dad beats my mum we try and stop him.” But as a married man, aged 21, Ravi is resorting to violence against his own wife. “When she tells lies she gets a beating. Every day. She won’t keep quiet. I get angry. If I go out somewhere, she will say: ‘Why did you take so long?’ ”According to Catherine Maternowska: “Stories like Ravi’s provide powerful data which helps us understand how and when we can effectively intervene to prevent violence. At age 12, when Ravi was very opposed to violence, a supportive violence prevention programme addressing the consolidation of gender norms before they set in could have possibly helped change his desire to use violence later in life.”The Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children undertakes research primarily in Italy, Peru, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe examining the way structural, institutional, community and individual factors interact to affect violence in children’s lives, with a particular focus on the risks and experiences of violence by gender and age. Complementing the study, a number of papers have been produced using the longitudinal quantitative and qualitative data produced by the Young Lives research initiative. Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty, initiated in 2000, which has followed 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India (in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Viet Nam. This set of papers aims to understand various aspects of children’s experiences of violence, and the impacts of violence on children’s lives over time, across different settings.Read more on the Multi Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children. Listen to a recent interview with UNICEF Innocenti researcher, Catherine Maternowska on the drivers of violence against children or read her latest blog reflecting on the way research is changing the way Peru is fighting violence against children. 
Peru makes strides in understanding drivers of violence against children
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(8 August 2016) A new report has revealed insights into the scope of physical, psychological and sexual violence affecting children in Peru. Produced by the Government of Peru with support from UNICEF, the findings are intended to support improved national violence prevention efforts. The Spanish language report, Understanding for Prevention: Summary of violence against children and adolescents in Peru, was led by Peru’s national Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations with support from UNICEF Peru and several other government and academic partners. The study feeds into the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti’s Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children on-going in Peru as well as in Italy, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe. Key findings from a nationally representative survey show that about 70 per cent of adolescent boys and girls report experiencing physical or psychological violence at home during their lifetimes, while about half of all boys and girls have experienced peer-to-peer violence in schools. Three out of four children in Peru aged 9 – 17 report having experienced emotional violence at home or in school. According to other data in the Cuzco Region up to one in five females had experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, while equal percentages of adolescent girls and boys reported experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. “These findings highlight the need for targeted research, policy and programming responses for prevention of violence,” said Mary Catherine Maternowska, who leads the Innocenti study for UNICEF. The Understanding for Prevention report employed a comprehensive investigation of reliable quantitative and qualitative data sources. Peru’s 2015 National Survey of Social Relations of over 3,000 children and adolescents in all parts of the country provides a robust quantitative national data sample. The Young Lives Longitudinal Study of Childhood Poverty contributes further understanding about violence based on cohort data from 4,000 Peruvian children who were followed from infancy to age 19. In addition, over 100 published and unpublished research articles on violence against children in Peru were analyzed and 60 violence prevention interventions carried out by government and private institutions were mapped and assessed.Maternowska notes that the study views violence affecting children not merely as an issue of personal behaviour, but as a complex social phenomenon.“Violent behavior is influenced by a host of ecological factors.  Parents’ and children’s levels of education, the quality of interpersonal relationships with the family to the family’s social connections to the community and a community’s social norms concerning the discipline and supervision of children can conspire against children in different ways in different cultures. Even more distal issues, like a family’s financial security can determine the types and intensity of violence.” The report focuses on violence occurring in different forms and in different settings. Physical, psychological and sexual violence are quantified and analyzed on the basis of age, gender and setting such as home, community and school. This allows Peruvian policy makers to organize more appropriate and better targeted interventions. In 2015 the Peruvian Parliament passed a law prohibiting corporal punishment against children in all settings, including the home, citing data from UNICEF’s Multi Country Study as having contributed to this historical moment.  Results from Understanding for Prevention are currently being used to calculate Peru’s overall Burden of Violence—a rigorous approach to estimating the impact of violence in Peru across multiple sectors (health, education, gender, social policy, etc.). A Burden of Violence study highlights the proportion of negative outcomes that could be reduced if violence was prevented.Additional findings highlighted in the report:The relationship between violence in childhood and poorer educational outcomes is profound and complex, affecting children across and between settings where they live, sleep, play and learn.  Violence tends to be normalized—or widely accepted—passed down from one generation to another.  Many violent mothers and fathers were themselves physically and psychologically abused in childhood, and they repeat those behaviours with their children who, in turn, use violence to resolve their own conflicts.Exposure to domestic violence can be psychologically harmful to children, and is often associated with physical violence against children and neglect. Alcohol abuse is highlighted in the literature as a risk factor for spousal violence.Girls who experienced physical violence at home were nearly twice as likely to have failed a course in the last year, or to have ever repeated a grade in school. Boys who experienced psychological violence, or were verbally threatened at home, were over three times more likely to have ever been expelled from school.Violence in schools, including physical and verbal abuse by teachers and peers, is the number one reason children give for disliking school. This is probably associated with grade repetition and slow progression through school. Children physically beaten in school at age 8 are 10 per cent more likely to have repeated a grade by age 12 than those who were not beaten. Entender para prevenir: Violencia hacia las niñas, niños y adolescentes en el Perú is a multi-sectoral publication of Peru’s national Ministerio de la Mujer y Poblaciones Vulnerables (MIMP) in cooperation with Perú Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática (INEI). It was produced by a multi-disciplinary team consisting of Peruvian government, researchers and practitioners with support from the Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú. External international support was provided by UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti with technical support from the University of Edinburgh. 


Mary Catherine Maternowska on the drivers of violence affecting children