Five things we learned from research on child survivors of violence
18 Aug 2020
Social Worker Phon Chanthorn (47) consults a family in Kandal province, Cambodia. All children have the right to be protected. Yet in Cambodia, the situation is dire for many. One in two children have experienced severe beating, one in four children have experienced emotional abuse, and 1 in 20 girls and boys have been sexually assaulted.
Understanding prevalence, characteristics and motives of disclosure, help-seeking and reporting of violence against childrenViolence against children is a pervasive global phenomenon. Estimates indicate over 1 billion children under the age of 18 experience emotional, physical or sexual violence every year from a range of perpetrators – including parents, peers and intimate or dating partners. Despite these high figures, official figures of VAC are just the tip of the iceberg.How much do we know about children’s disclosure, help-seeking and reporting of violence? Most studies in low- and middle-income countries have narrowly focused on either reporting intimate partner violence among adolescent girls, on specific types of violence, or in specific settings. A new publication, analyzing nationally representative Violence Against Children Survey data from six countries, aims to broaden the focus. The publication, just released in BMC Public Health, led by UNICEF Innocenti, in collaboration with other UNICEF offices and government counterparts, examines data from Cambodia, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania.The study had three objectives:
- Measure the prevalence of informal disclosure (to family and friends among others), formal help-seeking (from social, health and legal services), formal reporting, and receipt of formal help;
- Document characteristics associated with disclosure and health seeking;
- Understand reasons why children did not seek help.
- Most children have never told anyone about the violence they experience: Across countries the percentage of children who ever told someone informally about their experience was low—23% in Cambodia and 32% in Kenya, to 42% in Tanzania and 54% in Malawi. These estimates show that children may be telling survey interviewers about violence for the very first time and confirms that violence is largely under-acknowledged and “hidden in plain sight.” It also means that children’s existing social networks—including family, friends, and neighbors are often a first source of disclosure and possible support system for children survivors.
- Formal services are rarely accessed or utilized by child survivors: The percentage of children who reported to formal sources was low—ranging from under 1% in Cambodia to 25% in Tanzania (formal disclosure)—and the percentage who received help was even smaller (1% in Nigeria to 11% in Tanzania, this outcome was not measured in Cambodia or Haiti). These statistics confirm that only a fraction of children attempt to contact health, social or legal services and even fewer receive any support, highlighting the importance of expanding accessibility and reach of assistance.
- Factors encouraging disclosure, help-seeking and reporting varied by country: Identifying factors that encourage these behaviors could help target services or develop secondary prevention programming. However, few factors were consistently positively correlated with help-seeking behaviors—including factors that are hypothesized to help, like household wealth and residing in urban settings. This lack of pattern underscores the importance of context and the challenges in targeting services using observable characteristics of child survivors.
- Self-blame, apathy and not needing or wanting services were top factors deterring children from disclosure: Across countries, common reasons cited for not seeking help were responses like “I felt it was my fault (self blame)”, “I did not think it was a problem (apathy)” or “I don’t want or need services.” For example, in Cambodia, the most common reason for not seeking help for physical violence was self-blame, mentioned by 56% of children, while the most common reason in Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria was apathy (25%-39%). Fewer children reported fear of repercussions or helplessness, while lack of access and financial constraints were rarely mentioned. These reasons highlight the role of shame and how the normalization of VAC is pervasive.
- Better data and methodological innovation is urgently needed: This study underscores the need for innovation in research methodologies to accurately estimate prevalence of sensitive topics. Improvements might include methods allowing self-administration of questions and those which allow for greater confidentiality. In addition, future surveys should include a wider range of household and community level indicators to understand underlying dynamics surrounding the child’s environment—for example, parental (mental health, parenting, time use), household (social and economic vulnerability factors), and community (gender norms, service availability) characteristics.