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Child helplines - a crucial tool for protecting children from abuse and violence

23 Sep 2013
Nenita La Rose and Ravi R. Prasad, Child Helpline International,
In November 2012 children’s representatives attending the African Union’s "Third Pan-African Forum on Children" in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, demanded from the governments to end all wars on the continent and establish child helplines in every country.

While ending wars is an arduous task, it is far easier to establish child helplines that can protect children from abuse, violence and neglect even in the most peaceful societies around the world. Already, there are 173 child helplines functioning in 142 countries. Data collected by Child Helpline International (CHI) over the past 10 years from its member child helplines shows that the top-most reasons for which children and young people seek support are abuse and violence. More than 126 million contacts were made by children and young people with child helplines in the past decade, and over 18% of these were about abuse and violence. This demonstrates the magnitude of the problem and the need to provide children and young people with an option to report abuse and violence, and to voice their opinion and concerns about it.

Helplines have been in existence since the 19th century and child helplines evolved out of these crisis lines and hotlines. Several child helplines were set up even before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989, offering children and young people the opportunity to raise their voice and be protected from abuse and violence.

Child helplines have always been the entry point for children and young people, seeking support, care and protection, to access the child protection system in a country. Experiences of child helplines show that children and young people contact them when they are unable to share their fears, concerns and needs with their families, teachers or peers. The complete confidentiality offered by child helplines is one of the main reasons for young people to share their problems with the counsellors.

The figure below gives a disaggregation by gender and age of people who contacted child helplines in the past 10 years. The majority of contacts are made by young people in the age group of 13 to 15 years old. In the past decade almost 12 per cent of the contacts were made by young people in the age group 18 to 25 years old and another 3 to 4 per cent by those over 25 years of age.

The data shows that child helplines have become an effective tool for young people aged between 13 and 18 to get support, care and protection. Also, it is the young people who have access to phones and the internet who contact child helplines. In fact, child helplines have adapted sms counselling, email counselling and chat counselling as more and more young people prefer to communicate through these means.

Interestingly, adults also contact child helplines and since the onset of the economic crisis contacts by adults have increased. Most of these contacts are made by parents asking for advice on how to deal with their children.

Disaggregation by gender and age of child helpline contacts, past 10 years

Especially with regard to abuse and violence, young people prefer to speak with child helplines, as a large proportion of these acts are perpetrated by family members. CHI’s 10-year data demonstrates that in nearly 60 per cent of the cases of abuse and violence the perpetrators are reportedly members of the family. By accessing child helplines, the victims of abuse and violence get the necessary support and services they need.

What makes the services of child helplines unique and effective is the referral system. Every child helpline strives to have a wide network of partners, who are able to offer various services to children and young people ranging from food, shelter and other basic needs to health services and legal support. Child helplines refer children and young people to partner organisations or government departments to help resolve their problem.

This approach works well in responding to cases of abuse and violence, as all key actors - government and civil society organisations - join hands in dealing with these issues on a case by case basis. There are umpteen examples of child helplines referring victims of abuse and violence to law enforcement officials and to other partners. Many of these stories are documented in CHI’s annual publications, Connecting to Children and Violence Against Children reports.

Findings of research conducted by academics and child rights organisations about child helplines also underscore their crucial role in protecting children and young people from abuse and violence. The UN Special Representative on Violence Against Children, Ms Marta Santos Pais has described child helplines as core components of a comprehensive, robust and integrated national child protection system.

On the one hand, child helplines provide the much needed support and service to children and young people suffering from abuse and violence, on the other hand the data collected on these cases mirrors the state of children and young people.

Often, policy makers mention paucity of data to formulate appropriate policies. Indeed, it is hard to get authentic and real time data on issues like abuse and violence. Child helplines are in a position to provide this data, unadulterated voices of children and young people speaking about the abuse and violence they suffer. There is no other channel through which such data can be obtained. CHI present the child helpline data to policy and decision makers at national, regional and global levels, seeking to draw their attention to the issue and recommending action. The Violence Against Children report of CHI presents the data collected on these specific issues to support the work of the UN Special Representative on Violence Against Children.

In 2013 CHI will publish all the data it has collected over the past ten years to mark its 10th anniversary. Besides a global data publication that will contain major existing and emerging trends on contacts made with child helplines, beginning in June this year five regional publications will also be released. The objective is to make this data available to policymakers and to the civil society so that they align their programmes and interventions according to the needs of children and young people.

In 2012, child helplines adopted the "Durban Resolution" after three days of intense deliberations in Durban, South Africa, at the 6th International Consultation of Child Helpline International. The resolution calls upon governments, United Nations and the private sector to ensure that every child in need of care and protection should have access to a child helpline.

The resolution states:

- Recognise child helplines’ unique capacity to bring the voices of children to bear on strengthening child protection;
- Partner with child helplines to ensure that they are sustainable and accessible for all children free of charge; and,
- Ensure that the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include the protection and empowerment of children and young people

Child Helpline International believes that failure to protect children and young people from many of these threats, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and violence, would have a major impact on the countries’ economy. Lasting effects of abuse and violence, commercial and sexual exploitation or lack of basic needs would hamper their development into productive citizens, while imposing a huge financial burden on countries to provide for them in the years to come.

About the authors:

*Nenita La Rose is the Executive Director of Child Helpline International

*Ravi R. Prasad is the Head of Policy and Research of Child Helpline International based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.