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A ‘toxic cocktail’: How life on the margins can exacerbate children’s vulnerability to violence

06 Apr 2018
A ‘toxic cocktail’: How life on the margins can exacerbate children’s vulnerability to violence

By Alina Potts, Lanie Stockman

For too many children, the places where they should feel safe—at home, at school, in their communities—are the first and most frequent sites of violence. The latest data presented in UNICEF’s A Familiar Face shows, for example, that nearly 300 million children between the ages of 2 and 4 experience violent discipline by their caregivers on a regular basis. Reasons for this are nuanced, varied, and may be underpinned by social norms; for example, some caregivers may believe that such discipline is a demonstration of being a ‘good’ parent, while some may be influenced by how they believe other parents in their community discipline their children. Reading these statistics can be overwhelming; leading to a sense of futility. Yet we seek to understand the violence in children’s lives in order to better respond to it, and ultimately, to stop it from happening in the first place. Focusing our attention on interpersonal violence against children—revealing its scope, magnitude, causes and contributing factors—continues to be instrumental in identifying ways to address it. Solutions to ending violence against children must be as diverse and nuanced as its causes. In seeking to better understand causes and responses to violence, social scientists often design studies to identify ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors that may put children with certain characteristics, or experiences, more at risk of violence, or more likely to be protected from it. Recent research confirms the importance of understanding and identifying risk and protective factors for children to various harms including physical and sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment. Pinpointing these factors is crucial in developing prevention, early intervention strategies and support needs for individual children and families. At the same time, an over-emphasis on the factors that put children at risk, or what makes them and their families more vulnerable to violence –their  “vulnerabilities” – can lead to individualising causes and responses to violence against children. Vulnerability may be understood as the “circumstances, conditions or events that increase the probability that a family will have poor outcomes in the future.” Where these circumstances and conditions are narrowly defined, sight of the social and economic conditions that create or exacerbate children’s precarity may be lost. Children and their caregivers may even be deemed responsible for both the situations they find themselves in and for providing the remedies.
For too many children, the places where they should feel safe—at home, at school, in their communities—are the first and most frequent sites of violence.
For these reasons we pose the question: ‘How can concepts of vulnerability and marginalisation be considered in research, policy, advocacy and programs to enhance efforts to understand what drives violence against children and what can be done about it?’ Individuals, families, and communities cannot ‘lift themselves up by their bootstraps’ if the historical and political systems and structures within which they exist—operating at sub-national, national, regional and/or global levels—do not also change. As such, the concept of children’s marginalisation may help expose the “set of process[es] which ignores or relegates individuals or groups to the sidelines of political space, social negotiation, and economic bargaining. Homelessness, age, language, employment status, skill, caste, race, and religion are some criteria historically used to marginalize.” According to a UNESCO report, in this way marginalisation – or the toxic cocktail of inherited disadvantage, deeply ingrained social processes, unfair economic arrangements and bad policies - is consistent with the equity agenda, in that it illuminates factors over which children have no control… [which] matters because successful measures to tackle marginalization have to target specific underlying causes that may be missed by blanket interventions. One example of how of vulnerability and marginalisation have both been conceptualised and deployed to understand violence against children is in UNICEF’s recent Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children. The Drivers study comprised nationally-led data gathering in four country sites—Italy, Peru, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe—which focused on uncovering the institutional and structural drivers of physical, sexual and emotional violence against children, with the aim of creating an evidence base upon which policies and programs to prevent and respond to such violence could be built or improved. As its “Snapshot of Findings” notes:

Unequal power dynamics operate across gender, age and other status markers creating the circumstances within which violent acts occur. Violent acts are not merely an interaction between a child and one or more other individuals, but rather a socio-ecological phenomenon. This study shows how factors on multiple levels – individual characteristics, inter-personal relationships, and the communities in which people live – interact with institutional and structural drivers to increase or reduce a child’s risk.

The Drivers study adapts Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development to visually represent the interplay between micro- and meso-levels—individual, interpersonal, and community—with macro-level forces which it terms ‘drivers’. These are characterized either as structural drivers, defined as ‘rapid socio-economic transformations accompanied by economic growth but also instability, poverty, migration and gender inequality’; or institutional drivers, identified as ‘legal structures, ineffective child protection systems, weak school governance and harmful social and cultural norms, which often serve to reinforce children’s vulnerabilities.’ The Drivers study applies this socio-ecological framework to synthesizing and analysing existing data about VAC across these four diverse countries. In doing so, it posits that commonly, understandings of interpersonal violence towards children focus on risk and protective factors  at the individual, interpersonal and community levels, while their interaction with structural and institutional drivers may be less explicit—yet it is exactly this interaction that delineates how, where, when and why violence occurs in children’s lives. A Child Centred Framework for Violence Prevention proposed by the authors highlights the applications of this approach: that policies and programs which ‘consider the interplay of both macro and micro forces on children’s well-being, and how these forces affect their enabling environment, are likely to be more effective than simply addressing risk and protective factors alone.’ This reoriented framework (above) also serves to make visible the process of marginalisation that so often is subsumed in discourse about an individual or group’s ‘vulnerability’.  It shows how, for example, applying such a framework to the design of parenting programmes—a now universally-recommended approach—to reduce violent discipline allows for contextualization (in this case, to the Vietnamese context) as well as recognition that the interactions within households are determined by many factors without:

…a mapping of parents’ behavior may reveal factors including their financial security and/or level of education, the family’s connections to formal and non-formal support systems in their community, and prevailing beliefs influence affected by less proximal but still important factors such as living within an institutionalized caste system, or in a country where many adults or children migrate in search of work.

Thus applying the concepts of both ‘vulnerability’ and ‘marginalisation’ allows for fuller recognition of the drivers that both hinder and promote girls’ and boys’ strengths and capabilities at individual, household- and community-levels. Applying these lenses is thus a critical practice for practitioners, activists, researchers and policymakers seeking to identify, put in place, and share solutions to address and prevent violence against children.