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World: UNICEF Studies Child Abuse In Wealthiest Countries

Some 3,500 children die every year from abuse or neglect in rich countries. That's the finding of a new report by the UN children's fund, UNICEF. Topping the 27-country list with the highest number of child deaths are the U.S., Portugal, and Mexico. The Czech Republic and Hungary also have higher than average numbers of deaths.

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In 1994 a woman in the U.S. state of South Carolina strapped her two toddler sons into her car and drove it into a lake, drowning them.

The awful nature of Susan Smith's crime -- and the subsequent trial that saw her convicted -- attracted vast media coverage

But while cases like this temporarily shed light on the problem of physical child abuse in wealthy countries, much violence against children lies "in darkness when the media spotlight moves on."

That's how a new report by the UN children's fund, UNICEF, puts it.

The report says that some 3,500 children a year die as a result of abuse or neglect in the world's rich countries.

Gaspar Fajth is head of research at UNICEF's "Innocenti" center in Florence, Italy.

"Often countries are discussing child maltreatment when one death case happens which causes press attention, but [what] is not regularly discussed more generally in society [is] the everyday violence that children are subject [to]," Fajth says. "Our number one action point would be more public attention to this and we very much hope this report will trigger more public debate in the countries."

Topping the report's list are the U.S. and Mexico, where 22 children in a million die due to abuse or neglect. For Spain the figure is one child, while in Hungary it's 12.

But UNICEF said these figures are unreliable. Many child deaths are put down to "undetermined intent" where maltreatment is suspected but difficult to prove.

If you add in these cases of suspected abuse, the numbers look even worse. In the Czech Republic, for example, 12 children per million die every year. Slovakia's number rises to 10. And Portugal comes in with the worst record -- a whopping 37 deaths per million.

Fajth said his research found one clear picture emerging in the countries with the worst records.

"We found a correlation between violence in the society in general and the maltreatment and death of children, including young children," Fajth says. "Those countries that you mentioned tend to show higher injury and murder rates among others, so we can say there's a higher risk, in general in the society, of dying due to murder or other maltreatment or injuries."

So violence towards children is more common in a violent society -- or in families where violence is common between parents.

It's also more common when a parent abuses drugs or alcohol. Single parenthood, poverty, or stress are other risk factors.

At the other end of the scale are countries such as Italy and Spain, with very few children dying from abuse or neglect.

Fajth says low fertility rates in these countries were touted as a possible explanation. But that runs into problems when you look at other countries where small families are common too -- the Czech Republic and Hungary to name two. "It's true that some countries, like Spain and Italy, have very low fertility rates, however it's also true that some of the countries that do less well, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, have also low fertility rates. So having one child in the family certainly allows more resources and attention to those children, on the other hand, some other factors may also be at work."

These include regular home visits by nurses starting when a child is born. That's a luxury even some of the 27 countries surveyed can't afford, but where it's used it can be very effective in reducing abuse and neglect.

The report includes a small section on child abuse worldwide. And here the scale of the problem in rich countries pales in comparison. Africa has the worst homicide rate for children under 5 years of age -- 179 per million for boys, slightly less for girls.

It begs the question -- why focus on rich countries, when the problem is so much worse in the developing world?

Fajth says it's the first study of its kind, and the rich countries are a good place to start.