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Global child abuse

Tamsin Walker
September 5, 2014

In its report on global child abuse, the UN children's fund UNICEF uncovered violence on a scale so extreme it called it "commonplace." DW looks at how the world is failing its children and how to reverse the trend.

Image: picture alliance/blickwinkel

It's a well-documented fact that children who grow up in a violent environment are likely to become abusive themselves in later life. Less well-known, however, is just how many young people are therefore currently being primed for a life as perpetrators.

In its "Hidden in Plain Sight" report, UNICEF reveals the extent to which children the world over are suffering at the hands of adults. Often their own parents.

The most common form of abuse is violent discipline, with six out of ten children aged between two and 14 (almost a billion) regularly falling victim to physical punishment, the report said.

Under the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which 194 countries are party, every minor is guaranteed a life free of all forms of violence. Except they are not. Indeed in many parts of the world, they are more likely to be guaranteed the exact opposite.

Part of the problem, experts say, is the extent to which domestic violence against children is ignored and accepted by societies the world over.

Turning a blind eye

Spokesman for UNICEF Germany, Rudi Tarneden, says there is a tendency to think that when children are with their parents, neighbors or friends, they must be in a safe environment. "That is not always the case," he told DW. "Violence is committed in those 'safe' environments, but we only hear about the most extreme cases, when a child is shaken or starved to death."

children working on a rubbish tip
Child abuse takes many different forms, including having to workImage: imago/imagebroker

The fact that in 2013 German youth welfare workers took 40,000 children out of their families and put into them care, speaks of a broader problem. One which Claudia Kepp, head of communications at Save the Children Deutschland says society at large has a responsibility to solve.

"It is up to every individual to develop an awareness of the issue," she said, adding that a lack of civil courage often prevents third party involvement. "If people witness abuse against a child in public, they should not look away, they should take responsibility."

That said, the mind-set in Germany and many other Western countries has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Hitting or caning school children is no longer accepted, and parents are more likely to talk to their offspring about what they have done wrong, than resort to physical punishment.

A long, slow process

The shift in thinking is the result of awareness campaigns, which could have the same effect in countries anywhere in the world if parents, teachers, children and the authorities all work together. Save the Children runs various projects that aim to highlight the rights of children, and has already recorded some success.

"Violence is taboo, so it is hard to talk about it," Kepp said. "But in working with local partners in Afghanistan, for example, we have been able to pass on the values, and have consequently seen a dramatic reduction in abuse."

Young girl works on a carpet
Child protection workers say it is up to everyone to be more vigilantImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Achieving a fundamental shift in thinking on ingrained behavior is invariably an arduous process, but all the more so if victims do not perceive themselves as victims.

One particularly striking statistic in the UNICEF report relates to accepted social norms. Almost 50 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 across the world believe it is alright for a husband or partner to sometimes hit or beat his wife or partner.

"It is shocking to see to what extent violence has been internalized," Tarneden said. "It underscores the fact that violence breeds violence."

Breaking the cycle

He says the key to eradicating domestic violence against minors is to make sure families get the support they need before an abusive pattern is established: "If parents are taught to learn and to play with their children, to develop good relationships with them, it really does help to reduce violence."

A hand moves toward the silhouette of a child's face
All too often violence against children is kept in the shadowsImage: picture alliance / ZB

Some situations do not lend themselves to early intervention - one obvious one being war. But the fact that violence against children is often the result of the parents' own frustration, itself a bi-product of violent conflict, means that war-zones are a breeding ground for domestic abuse.

Kepp stresses the importance of not abandoning children caught up in wars to additional violence. "The biggest problem we face is that they quickly come to regard abuse as normal, and become aggressive towards others," she said. "They have already experienced the worst possible, so we have to do whatever we can to promote child protection and a life without violence."