Accessibility links

Breaking News

UN: Violence Against Children Widespread 'In Every Society'

Street children in Tajikistan (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) --- A UNICEF report finds violence against children occurs in every country, every society, and every social group. The four-year study, commissioned by the UN secretary-general, collected data from governments around the world regarding the frequency of reported violent acts against children, ranging from forced prostitution to bullying at school. Among other things, it found that some 150 million girls -- 14 percent of the planet's child population -- are sexually abused each year. The authors of the study, which is being presented at the UN on October 12, hope it will result in the appointment of a special UN envoy to raise global awareness of the problems. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with UNICEF spokesperson Soraya Bermejo.

RFE/RL: The 'UN Study on Violence against Children' presents a disturbing picture of abuse that ranges from sexual exploitation to physical punishment, for example, at home and in schools. Why have the researchers chosen to look at such a broad spectrum of abuse in a single report?

Bermejo: If you go by the formal definition, [violence] is any intentional use of force or power against a child that results in injury, death, psychological harm, etc. But the view of many experts working with children is that violence is actually what the child perceives to be violence, because it might be, for example, that some schools think that giving corporal punishment to a child is just educating the child, but to the child that is violence, that is aggression. So, it is important to have the formal definition but also to try and think from the point of view of a child: you are somebody who is smaller than the other person and therefore less powerful and you are being subjected to a certain level of aggression that you cannot really defend yourself against.

RFE/RL: The study says that "children have suffered adult violence unseen for centuries" and that "protection from violence is a matter of urgency." What are some of the consequences of violence – both for the children and for societies?

Bermejo: There are many different levels of violence but at the end of the day the child that is affected by it is affected, whichever way it happens. And it has many important consequences in life, in terms not only of psychological consequences but very often even health consequences in the long term. So, it is something that in a country where this is not being tackled, if the level of violence is very high it actually affects the level of development of a country in the long term.

RFE/RL: The study notes that violence against people under 18 years of age – that is, children – occurs in every country, every society, and every social group. But it notes that not all are affected equally and that children in poorer families are particularly vulnerable. Why is that?

Bermejo: In general, their parents would be less aware of what kind of social services they have access to, so it would be harder if, for example, a child is subjected to violence by the father, for a mother from a poor background to be able to find help and a solution, and she is very likely to be affected herself by the issue of violence. So issues like ethnic origin, social background, level of wealth do affect the level of protection for a child.

RFE/RL: The UNICEF report also calls on all states to outlaw violence against children and to ensure their rights are protected. How do you rate the level of protection offered to children now around the world?

Bermejo: Very, very patchy, depending on the country and depending on the social level of the people affected. There are countries where there are very good programs but where those programs only reach a certain sector of the population, and there are other sectors that are completely outside. So, at the moment, there is not an even situation internationally and not even nationally in many places. And what we are aiming for is a realization that every child has a right to be protected from violence, it doesn't matter where he lives and it doesn't matter what is his or her social level.

RFE/RL: The report's author, Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, says the study shows the present global level of violence against children is not acceptable and must no longer go unchallenged. What do you hope for as one immediate result of presenting this study at the UN in New York?

Bermejo: One of the most important [recommendations] that the study makes is the appointment of an independent expert on violence against children, someone who would be a kind of envoy of the UN secretary-general on this issue. This does make a difference in terms of raising the profile of the issue.