Half of the world’s children — one billion every year — are affected by physical, sexual or psychological violence, suffering injuries and death because countries have failed to follow established strategies to protect them, the first report of its kind from the UN has said, with experts noting that the coronavirus-related lockdowns have left far too many youngsters stuck with their abusers.
While nearly all countries (88%) have laws in place to protect minors, less than half (47%) say they strongly enforce them, said the Global Status Report on Preventing Violence Against Children 2020 launched on Thursday.
Because countries have failed to follow established strategies to protect children, about one billion are affected each year by physical, sexual or psychological violence, it said.
“There is never any excuse for violence against children,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“We have evidence-based tools to prevent it, which we urge all countries to implement. Protecting the health and well-being of children is central to protecting our collective health and well-being, now and for the future,” he said.
The report — launched by the World Health Organisation, the UNICEF, the UNESCO, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children and the End Violence Partnership — charted progress in 155 countries against the “INSPIRE” framework, a set of seven strategies for preventing and responding to violence against children.
The report signalled a clear need in all countries to scale up efforts to implement them. It included the first ever global homicide estimates specifically for children under 18 years of age — previous estimates were based on data that included 18 to 19-year olds.
According to the findings, in 2017, around 40,000 children were victims of homicide.
“Violence against children has always been pervasive, and now things could be getting much worse,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.
“Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have left far too many children stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that school would normally offer. It is urgent to scale up efforts to protect children during these times and beyond, including by designating social service workers as essential and strengthening child helplines,” she said.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related school closures, “we have seen a rise in violence and hate online — and this includes bullying”.
“Now, as schools begin to re-open, children are expressing their fears about going back to school. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that schools are safe environments for all children. We need to think and act collectively to stop violence at school and in our societies at large,” Mr. Azoulay said.
Stay-at-home measures including school closures have limited the usual sources of support for families and individuals such as friends, extended family or professionals.
This further erodes victims’ ability to successfully cope with crises and the new routines of daily life. Spikes in calls to helplines for child abuse and intimate partner violence have been observed, the report said.
While online communities have become central to maintain many children’s learning, support and play, an increase in harmful online behaviours including cyberbullying, risky online behavior and sexual exploitation have been identified. Whilst this report was being finalised, confinement measures and the disrupted provision of already limited child protection services exacerbated the vulnerability of children to various forms of violence,” said Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children. Of the INSPIRE strategies, only access to schools through enrolment showed the most progress with 54% of the countries reporting that a sufficient number of children in need were being reached in this way.
Between 32% and 37% of the countries considered that victims of violence could access support services, while 26% of the countries provided programmes on parent and caregiver support; 21% of the countries had programmes to change harmful norms; and 15% of the countries had modifications to provide safe physical environments for children, the report said.
Although a majority of countries (83%) have national data on violence against children, only 21% used these to set baselines and national targets to prevent and respond to violence against children, it added.
The report said about 80% of countries have national plans of action and policies but only one-fifth have plans that are fully funded or have measurable targets. A lack of funding combined with inadequate professional capacity are likely contributing factors and a reason why implementation has been slow.
“Ending violence against children is the right thing to do, a smart investment to make – and it’s possible. We can and must create a world where every child can thrive,” Howard Taylor of the End Violence Partnership said.