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Can we change the way we think about violence against children and women?

23 Mar 2021
Can we change the way we think about violence against children and women?
Selina was 8 the first time her father hit her. And while he tearfully apologized afterwards, a few weeks later he did it again. Her mother often suffered the same fate, she knew, behind closed doors. It became a pattern in Selina’s life whenever he was drinking – and angry. When Selina was a teenager, her first boyfriend was much like her father – loving and warm at times – but with a violent underside that left her cowering with fear. But Selina was accustomed to these unpredictable, alternating displays of rage and affection and found his protectiveness comforting. At 17, she became pregnant, and after suffering her parents’ disapproval, left home to live with her boyfriend. His aggressiveness began to escalate as her belly grew, and after one particularly violent night, she started spotting. She began to fear for her health and pregnancy. Selina decided to leave, but was not sure where to turn. The women’s shelters she had heard of only accepted women 18 years and older. The officer at the police station threatened to call her parents. With nowhere else to go, she spent the night on a park bench, uncertain of what the future would hold.


Selina’s story represents not just a personal tragedy, but the failure of systems - systems that are often structured to respond separately to situations of violence against women and violence against children. They can fail the needs of certain groups – such as adolescents – as well as miss the opportunity to break intergenerational cycles of violence.

What do we know about different types of violence?

Although only the more gruesome stories about partner homicide or severe child maltreatment tend to make headlines, the truth is violence against women and children is sadly commonplace. According to most recent WHO estimates, 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime, a number that had remained largely unchanged over the past decade, at least until the pandemic. Intimate partner violence starts early: 1 in 4 young women (aged 15-24 years) who have been in a relationship will have already experienced violence by the time they reach their mid-twenties. Children are no better off - a multi-country study of 96 countries suggests that more than half (1 billion) of the world’s children aged 2-17 experienced physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse during the past year. Violence against children, adolescents, and women is likely to increase as a result of COVID-19 confinement measures, further spurring the international community to recognize these as human rights and public health problems of critical importance with important development implications, including for countries’ immediate and long-term pandemic responses. But while the violence experienced by Selina at the hands of her father and boyfriend are often seen as unfortunate, individual incidents, they are, in fact. highly interconnected. Men who hit their partners - such as Selina’s father - were often abused themselves as boys, or witnessed their fathers being violent towards their mothers. The same goes for girls, like Selina, who grow up exposed to intimate partner violence. Children in such households tend to mimic these harmful, gendered patterns in their own relationships – in adolescence, and later on in adulthood: boys may grow up to perpetrate violence, and girls may grow up to experience it.  
Experiencing violent discipline, and being exposed to intimate partner violence in the childhood home both increase the risk of violence in adulthood, either as victims or perpetrators.

What can be done to help break the cycle of violence?

A new strategy document from UNICEF examines how and why UNICEF and international partners should pay greater attention to the gender dimensions of violence against children and adolescents, including drivers of violence, and offers concrete ways to more effectively prevent and respond to this issue. Solutions are based on existing evidence as well as guidance and frameworks for action developed by international partners (such as INSPIRE and RESPECT). The first step should be to recognize that Selina’s experiences of violence are not one-off occurrences, nor should they be relegated to the realm of “private” family affairs. Violence occurs across the lifespan and is both a reflection and a mechanism to perpetuate larger socio-normative and gender inequalities that increase the vulnerabilities of children, adolescents and women. The same social norms that condone such violence also contribute to discrimination against boys, men, and LGBTQI+ individuals.
Interventions, then, should employ a life course and gender transformative approach that addresses the root causes of gender-based inequalities and works to transform harmful gender roles, norms, and power imbalances.
The second step could be to start with Selina’s parents. There should be a greater investment in helping sexual and reproductive health services, including prenatal care, prevent and respond to intimate partner violence against pregnant women and new mothers. Additionally, preliminary evidence suggests that parenting and caregiver programs can not only reduce parents’ use of violent discipline against their children but that they can potentially lower the risk of intimate partner violence. Helping Selina’s mother – and intervening with her father - in the early years could have contributed to breaking the cycle of violence for herself and for her daughter. Thirdly, to help adolescents like Selina and her newborn, expand services for girls, boys, and women who experience violence, ensuring that they are age and gender appropriate. At a minimum, prepare service providers to a) recognize links between violence against children/adolescents and child and adolescent health (both physical and mental); and b) understand implications of intimate partner violence for both women and children’s health and wellbeing. A sensitized police officer may have reacted more appropriately to Selina’s plea for help, and a well-resourced women’s shelter would have known to connect her with youth-friendly services – or they could have taken her in themselves. Finally, changes should be made at a systems level; whole systems approaches should be used, with actors from different sectors (such as medical, child protection, legal/justice, education sectors) working together rather than in siloes. Case country studies from Cambodia, Viet Nam, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea jointly conducted by UN Women, UNICEF, and UNFPA, have highlighted opportunities for coordination of services for violence against women and violence against children.

Hope for the future?

Although knowledge gaps remain, particularly where low- and middle-income countries are concerned, promising systematic reviews have examined the effectiveness of strategies such as parenting interventions to prevent violence against children, support women parenting in the context of intimate partner violence (IPV) survivors, cash transfer programmes to decrease IPV, and programmes for boys and men to prevent sexual, dating, and intimate partner violence. There are ample promising practices from which to draw inspiration. And while there is much work to be done, the future is bright: one final, and important conclusion emerging from global evidence is that violence against children, adolescents and women is indeed preventable. We can and should do our part for the Selinas of the world. UNICEF is committed to addressing the gender dimensions of violence against children, including its intersections with violence against women.   Floriza Gennari is Consultant on violence prevention in the Child Rights and Protection Team. Alessandra Guedes is Gender and Development Research Manager at UNICEF Innocenti.