Second Plenary: Causes of Poverty
War and Violence: Ending Violence Against Children
Remarks by Ms. Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary-General on Violence against Children
It is an honour for me to speak to you at this important fourth forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children. I am fully committed to pursuing our shared agenda to prevent and address violence against children as a high priority. This is indeed critical, both to consolidate the important achievements made so far and to make sure that a culture of non-violence for children can take root in our societies. Violence affects disproportionately those in poverty and who are socially excluded. It compromises social development and very especially children's well-being and fundamental rights. Children living in poverty have less access to social services to prevent violence, and to be supported in the healing, recovery and reintegration when they suffer violence either as victims or witnesses.
These were critical dimensions addressed by the UN Study on Violence Against Children (VAC) and constitute a priority to my Mandate as Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on VAC. The commitment of religious leaders and communities to implement the recommendations of the UN Study is a strategic dimension of my mandate.
Religious Leaders command extraordinary moral authority, fostering dialogue, helping to bridge differences, and influencing thinking and behavioral change. Benefiting from the trust and confidence of individuals, families and communities, religious leaders and communities can help transform into a universal and irreversible imperative the principle that no religious teaching or tradition may justify any form of violence against children. I am coming from an inaugural international meeting on protection of children from harmful practices, including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, stoning or acid attacks often constituting severe forms of violence and strongly hampering the enjoyments of the rights of child – to health, education, to an identity or family environment, to be protected from neglect, violence and abuse. There again decisive voice, advocacy and mobilizing capacity of religious leaders was given priority attention. I was asked to convey to you all the recognition and respect for your decisive role in promoting the abandonment of harmful practices in communities where there are violations. I look forward to collaborating with you in moving this process forward.
My determination to build upon the leadership and strategic license of religious leadership was also reaffirmed in my most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council. The report included valuable references to the key role of faith-based communities, including on the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children with whom my mandate has developed a strong and decisive partnership.
The World Day of Prayer and Action for Children is as you know a global movement of religious leaders and communities of all faiths and secular organization, who are committed to the promotion of children's rights. The World Day is an opportunity for religious leaders and faith-based institutions to join hands with inter-governmental organization and civil society- including parents, teachers and young people- to promote the child's physical, social, psychological and spiritual development. I warmly welcome the decision to devote the next few years to the topic of ending violence against children.
One significant example of faith based mobilization in support of children's protection from violence took place in the Domincan Republic, where more than 70 faith-based organizations and child rights advocates rallied behind an interreligious Declaration calling for enhanced efforts to implement the recommendations of the UN Study and highlighting religious leaders' commitment to promote non-violence, the protection of children from violence in their communities as well as non-violent discipline within the homes. The Declaration was officially presented in the framework of the Central American Governmental meeting on violence against children in the Dominican Republic last year in December and is an example of how faith-based initiatives can help galvanize government commitment and action to protect all children from all violence. I know some of those associated with this process are represented here today and I want to salute their decisive contribution.
Freedom from violence is a fundamental human right recognized by the CRC which all countries have committed to safeguard for all children, everywhere and at all times. Unfortunately, in striking contrast with these human rights imperative, violence remains widespread, pervasive and socially condoned. It knows no social or cultural borders and it takes place in all contexts; including where children are expected to enjoy a secure environment and special protection- in care institution, in the school and also within a home.
Children suffer neglect and trauma when they witness violence, and when they endure humiliation, physical aggression, abuse and exploitation.
Younger children, children with disabilities and children belonging to minorities are at special risk; they have less ability to speak and seek support; and they have greater chances of suffering irreversible emotional and health damage.
Despite the growing efforts made in all parts of the world to address violence against children, we are facing enormous challenges, both when children are impacted by the destruction, division and fear provoked by armed conflicts, when they continue to be instrumentalized and victimized; disproportionally, and also, when children suffer violence behind a curtain of silence and indifference in care and justice institutions, in schools and it's the privacy of the home.
You are key partners in the process of change we need to promote, to build a world of justice, solidarity and joy for every child, a world where violence, in whatever form and under whatever circumstance, finds no justification or excuse.
According to the recent UNICEF Study on child disciplinary practices by parents and other caregivers in 35 developing countries (Covering around 10% of the world's child population in developing world), more than 75% of children between 2 and 14 years of age experience some form of violence within the home. Shouting, yelling or screaming at a child are the most common practices; but in many cases other more severe forms of violence occur- including spanking, hitting and beating the child with a belt, stick or other object.
These findings raise deep concern and they are confirmed by national surveys in different parts of the world, including the significant national study launched last year in Tanzania. These studies also provide reasons for hope-in fact, in majority of households, non-violent discipline is more common that violent attitudes; moreover, the majority of care givers acknowledge that physical punishment is not necessary to bring up children and in case where they were engaged in greater levels of educational and play activities with their children and promoted positive discipline, violence was indeed less prevalent. These important indications open promising avenues to promote good parenting and to enhance violence prevention initiatives. Your critical voices and support will help support parents in the use of such positive discipline approaches.
Around the world, children suffer emotional and physical ill-treatment, sexual violence and abuse; they are forced into marriage, sold and trafficked, for illegal adoption and forced labour; and in some countries, they continue to be at risk of being sentenced to stoning, amputation, and capital punishment and life imprisonment.1
Violence in schools is wide spread. In some countries, child sexual abuse, particularly of girls, perpetuated by teachers and other school personnel, is so pervasive that it has led to a new expression children often use of "sex for grades".
In many nations, ill treatment and beating of children by teachers and school staff is considered unlawful and punished with disciplinary measures; in the case of some more serious forms of violence, such as sexual harassment or abuse, the outcome may be the dismissal of those found responsible. Unfortunately, however, violence in schools remains lawful in more than 80 States; and in some cases, serious forms of violence, such as caning and whipping, are officially regulated as a disciplinary measure.
In some communities, traditional harmful practices, including sex preferences, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), early marriages, are deeply rooted in society; they are hard to abandon without genuine mobilization and active involvement of those concerned. Girls from the poorest households are three times more likely to get married before 18 years of age than those from wealthier families. In some countries, pregnant and married students are forced to leave school. Their young age and powerlessness make them more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse. Girls belonging to low socio-economic status are also at high risk of exposure to HIV infection. They may have fewer opportunities to seek information to keep safe, and to benefit from prevention, treatment, and support services. When giving birth at an early age, they are also at higher risk of maternal mortality- 5 times more, when they marry before 15.
Although less frequently acknowledged, violence against boys is also a significant problem, including sexual abuse within the home. Official statistics largely under-represent the number of victims, and reporting by boys seems to be particularly hard. And in many cases, legislation also neglects this reality.
Violence against children is a major concern for young people in all regions. Children feel frightened to speak up, uncertain about the support they may receive, and above all they feel deprived of the information they need to seek advice and protection in their healing, recovery and reintegration.
Violence and abuse of children is one of the main reasons why children contact child helplines. These institutions allow children to speak up directly to someone in trust and anonymously, enabling the child to benefit from advice and at times also from mediation, shelter and reintegration services.
According to recent report by Child Helpline International, bullying, physical and sexual abuse are most common forms of violence reported, and in the majority of cases these incidents are perpetrated by people close to the child, including foster and step parents, and members of the extended family.
Children's actions and resilience
Children express deep frustration at the levels of violence, abuse and fear that surround their lives. They feel physically wounded and also deeply hurt in their dignity and self- esteem. But in no way this compromises courage to take action and their determination to promote advocacy and encourage change. They are critical allies in the call made by this meeting of the Global Network of Religions for Children; Inspire. Act .Change!
Children have a remarkable resilience, recognizing the opportunity for change, and the indispensable role they can play in this process. This is why I am truly delighted that there will be opportunities in this meeting to discuss with children and benefit from their views, experience and recommendations on ways to prevent and address violence against children.
Through school debates and community events, radio programmes and street drama, through cartoons, blogs, and social media, young people help to raise awareness amongst children and their families about the risks and dramatic impact of violence, helping to generate stronger confidence to report incidents and greater pressure for speedy solutions by responsible institutions.
Listening to young people's views and experiences is critical to gain a better understanding of the hidden face and, more importantly, to become better equipped to prevent its occurrence, to develop child sensitive counseling, recovery and long lasting reintegration strategies, and to monitor progress and impact of our common efforts.
Violence has a serious and long lasting impact
Violence hurts when it happens and also leaves dramatic scars and lifelong consequences, hampering children's development, learning abilities and school performance, and very often lasting for a life time. Violence inhibits positive relationships, provokes low self- esteem. Emotional distress and depression and, at times, leads to risk taking, self-harm and aggressive behavior.
Beyond its impact on individual victims, violence generates fear and insecurity amongst peers and friends, and it provokes anxiety and distress amongst family members.
But in addition, violence carries with it very serious economic costs for society, reducing human capacity and compromising social development. Fighting against violence is therefore a core component of the fight to eradicate poverty and promote social development.
It is very important to recall that responding to violence is much costly than investing in its prevention! And investing in prevention has a strong social return. In this period of widespread economic crisis with increasing risks for cuts in social spending, investing in violence prevention is not only a question of good economics but a reassuring way of limiting the economic impact of the crisis in the long run.
Violence against children has serious and long lasting consequences. And yet, it remains widely perceived as a social taboo or a needed form of discipline; and it is seldom reported, including by professionals working with children who hesitate to take action and prefer not to be involved as witness in criminal investigations. There are also low levels of conviction and as a result, official statistics remain limited in their ability to capture the true scale and extent of this phenomenon; openly or implicitly, children feel pressed to conceal incidents of violence and abuse, particularly when perpetrated by people they know and trust, including in institutional care and within the home. A culture of silence, secrecy and social indifference surrounds this phenomenon, paving way to pervasive impunity.
Violence against children has serious and long lasting consequences and needs to be addressed with determination. Guided by this sense of urgency, I would like to touch upon some areas of special relevance.
Firstly, with your influential advocacy and critical support, we can break the conspiracy of silence around violence against children and generate visibility and concern at the negative impact of neglect, ill-treatment, abuse and exploitation on girls and boys. Together, we can encourage social and behavioral change and help promote the abandonment of practices that perpetrate violence in society. We can support initiatives to gather data and gain a deeper understanding of the incidences and magnitude of this phenomenon, and of initiatives with a potential to achieve tolerance and peace. You are in a unique position to encourage positive discipline and effective alternatives to violent forms of conflict resolution.
Your authority and influence can help transform violence against children from a concern of a few into a priority for all.
Secondly, with your decisive advocacy role, there is an exceptional opportunity to mobilize support for the introduction of a national, explicit and comprehensive legal ban on all forms of violence against children. As you know, legislation is an indispensable component of any strategy to prevent and combat violence: it encourages the education of children through non-violent means and it provides protection for victims and witnesses while legitimizing reporting, recovery and reintegration.
Globally, only about 5% of the world's children are legally protected from all forms of violence. In fact, only some 34 countries have legislation prohibiting violence in all contexts, including in the home, in schools and care and justice institutions. This is an area where promising developments are taking place around the world- as evidenced by the growing number of legislative initiatives that promote positive discipline and introduce a legal prohibition of all forms of violence against children, including within the home. But more can be done and with your help, we can accelerate progress to move in that direction.
Thirdly, we can benefit from your unique support to advance the campaign for the universal ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Conventions on the Rights. The campaign was launched in 2010 with the secretary-General and strategic UN partners. Since its launch, 21 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, bringing the total to 158 countries. At present, only 26 countries have not yet ratified the Protocol, but many of them have made formal commitments to adhere to this treaty.
In other words, a strong momentum has been built and with your vital support, universal ratification of the Protocols may soon become a reality!
Fourthly, to gain perspective on progress achieved, reflect on good practices and factors of success, and support countries in their efforts to overcome persisting challenges, we are conducting a global survey on violence against children.
The survey questionnaire was shared with Member States and a wide range of partners, within and beyond the UN system. The outcomes of the global survey will build upon the important initiatives promoted by religious communities around the world and will inform my report to the General Assembly this year, helping to map progress and sustain the momentum built so far.
From our initial analysis, we see an evolving picture emerging. A picture where violence against children is becoming part of the national agenda, with increasing legislative action, policy interventions, and information campaigns to safeguard children's freedom from violence; and with some promising initiatives to capture the magnitude and incidence of this phenomenon on children's daily lives.
But we also see a picture where progress is uneven, with insufficient efforts to develop a cohesive and well-resourced agenda on violence against children; with uncoordinated, dispersed and often reactive interventions, and fragmented pieces of legislation; insufficient investment in family support, in the capacity building of professionals, and in safe and child sensitive mechanisms to address incidents of violence; and overall, with a frequent lack of data and research to help break the invisibility of this phenomenon, fight impunity and promote evidence based decision making.
With painstaking work, we can reverse this pattern. I am confident that the outcome of the global survey on violence against children will be supported by your actions including into the 2012 and future activities of the World Day of Prayer and Action.
I want to convey my very best wishes for a very fruitful and productive meeting. I look forward to continuing to join hands with you in ensuring that respect for children's protection from violence is given a priority in all parts of the world.
Let me thank you all once again for your strong commitment to children's rights and to children's protection from violence. I look forward to your continued guidance and active contribution to move this agenda steadily forward.
1 According to the Child Rights Information Network, at least seven countries still maintain death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles and in at least 40 countries, children can be sentenced to whipping, flogging, caning or amputation.