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United Nations Report on Violence Against Children

Research at the basis of the ‘Declaration on the Rights of the Child’ which was adopted by the UN’s General Assembly in August 2006


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The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Background and Policy Issues
Despite widespread U.S. support for the overall objectives of the Convention, some past and current policymakers have raised concerns as to whether it is an effective mechanism for protecting children’s rights. The Clinton Administration signed the Convention in February 1995, but did not submit it to the Senate primarily because of strong opposition from several Members of Congress. www.amazon.com
No violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable. Yet the in-depth study on violence against children (the Study) confirms that such violence exists in every country of the world, cutting across culture, class, education, income and ethnic origin. In every region, in contradiction to human rights obligations and children’s developmental needs, violence against children is socially approved, and is frequently legal and State-authorized.

— UN-Doc. A/61/299 of August 29, 2006, A, I, 1, p. 5.

What is unique in this study, and quite different from the current child sexuality policy in the United States, children themselves were heard by the expert group and could voice their suggestions for better protection from violence (A, I, 4).

It is also significant that the experts were not lured in the old morality debate that justifies violence against children with the typical arguments forwarded by paternalistic society: tradition and discipline. (A, I, 2).

Eventually, the expert group also emphasizes what I pointed out in this study and other books of mine, that is violence ‘is multidimensional and calls for a multifaceted response’ (A, I, 5).

A particularly important sector of violence against children is education and the so-called reeducation of delinquent children and adolescents. Here, the report is particularly honest and revealing and truly has merit. As an introduction to this complex of questions, the report states:

Societal acceptance of violence is also an important factor: both children and perpetrators may accept physical, sexual and psychological violence as inevitable and normal. Discipline through physical and humiliating punishment, bullying and sexual harassment are frequently perceived as normal, particularly when no visible or lasting physical injury results. The lack of an explicit legal prohibition of corporal punishment reflects this. According to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, at least 106 countries do not prohibit the use of corporal punishment in schools, 147 countries do not prohibit it within alternative care settings, and as yet only 16 countries have prohibited its use in the home.

— UN-Doc. A/61/299 of August 29, 2006, I, A, 26, p. 9.

The report summarizes the emerging picture in part II, B, 28, in six points:

  • WHO has estimated, through the use of limited country-level data, that almost 53,000 children died worldwide in 2002 as a result of homicide.
  • Studies from many countries in all regions of the world suggest that up to 80 to 98 per cent of children suffer physical punishment in their homes, with a third or more experiencing severe physical punishment resulting from the use of implements.
  • Reporting on a wide range of developing countries, the Global School-based Health Survey recently found that between 20 and 65 per cent of school-aged children reported having been verbally or physically bullied in the past 30 days. Bullying is also frequent in industrialized countries.
  • WHO estimates that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence during 2002.
  • According to a WHO estimate, between 100 and 140 million girls and women in the world have undergone some form of female genital mutilation/cutting. Estimates from UNICEF published in 2005 suggest that in sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and the Sudan, 3 million girls and women are subjected to genital mutilation/cutting every year.
  • Recent ILO estimates indicate that, in 2004, 218 million children were involved in child labour, of whom 126 million were in hazardous work. Estimates from 2000 suggest that 5.7 million were in forced or bonded labour, 1.8 million in prostitution and pornography, and 1.2 million were victims of trafficking. However, compared with estimates published in 2002, the incidence of child labour has diminished by 11 per cent and 25 per cent fewer children were found working in hazardous occupations.

What is interesting in the report is that sexual violence is cited here in the explicit formulation as forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual violence.

No allusion was made as to sexual mating between children and adults that took place in a setting where the child consented, even though that consent may not be deemed valid by the laws of the place, but where the child explicitly or implicitly expressed a willingness for sexual interaction with the adult.

It is certainly important to note that the study did not expressly subsume nonviolent and consenting erotic encounters between adults and children as sexual violence inflicted upon a child.

In the contrary, the study clearly emphasizes the devastating effects of violence, and also of physical, educational violence that hitherto most government reports try to belittle or play down. The report states:

  • 41. Violence against children in the family may frequently take place in the context of discipline and takes the form of physical, cruel or humiliating punishment. Harsh treatment and punishment in the family are common in both industrialized and developing countries. Children, as reported in studies and speaking for themselves during the Study’s regional consultations, highlighted the physical and psychological hurt they suffer as a result of these forms of treatment and proposed positive and effective alternative forms of discipline.
  • 42. Physical violence is often accompanied by psychological violence. Insults, name-calling, isolation, rejection, threats, emotional indifference and belittling are all forms of violence that can be detrimental to a child’s psychological development and well-being — especially when it comes from a respected adult such as a parent. It is of critical importance that parents be encouraged to employ exclusively non- violent methods of discipline.

Further down, the report focuses on the aggravating circumstance that the child is female, as more violence has been seen to occur against female children compared to violence suffered by male children.

What is important to note here is that the report emphasizes as a potential risk in child marriage the danger for the girl to suffer coercive sex, not just marital sex in the ordinary understanding of the word.

Second, it is interesting that some Western countries are mentioned in the report regarding traditional practices of female genital mutilation that in the mass media of those countries, and here especially the United States, are almost always attributed to African or Arabic populations, and often even in an implicitly defamatory way attributed to Islam or Islamic minorities such as the Taliban:

  • 45. Absence of legally established minimum ages for sexual consent and marriage in some countries may expose children to partner violence. Eighty-two million girls are estimated to marry before age 18. A significant number are married at much younger ages, frequently coercively, and face a high risk of violence, including forced sex.
  • 46. Harmful traditional practices affect children disproportionately and are generally imposed on them at an early age by their parents or community leaders. According to the Special Rapporteur on traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl child, female genital mutilation, which, according to WHO, is carried out on increasingly younger girls, is prevalent in Africa, and also occurs in some parts of Asia and within immigrant communities in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States of America. Other harmful traditional practices affecting children include binding, scarring, burning, branding, violent initiation rites, fattening, forced marriage, so-called honour crimes and dowry-related violence, exorcism, or witchcraft.

The perhaps most important part of the report is C. ‘Violence in care and justice systems.’

Before quoting the most relevant passages from the report below, let me repeat as an international lawyer that until today, no human rights protection has been enforced for juvenile offenders and delinquents for protecting them against abuses suffered in correctional institutions, while for adult offenders such protection is assured in most countries, and for ordinary and partly also for political prisoners.

This is by itself a revolting fact that to my knowledge many people simply ignore, or not even bother about.

  • 53. Millions of children, particularly boys, spend substantial periods of their lives under the control and supervision of care authorities or justice systems, and in institutions such as orphanages, children’s homes, care homes, police lock-ups, prisons, juvenile detention facilities and reform schools. These children are at risk of violence from staff and officials responsible for their well-being. Corporal punishment in institutions is not explicitly prohibited in a majority of countries.
  • 54. Overcrowding and squalid conditions, societal stigmatization and discrimination, and poorly trained staff heighten the risk of violence. Effective complaints, monitoring and inspection mechanisms, and adequate government regulation and oversight are frequently absent. Not all perpetrators are held accountable, creating a culture of impunity and tolerance of violence against children. The impact of institutionalization goes beyond the experience by children of violence. Long-term effects can include severe developmental delays, disability, irreversible psychological damage, and increased rates of suicide and recidivism.
  • 55. As many as 8 million of the world’s children are in residential care. Relatively few are in such care because they have no parents, but most are in care because of disability, family disintegration, violence in the home, and social and economic conditions, including poverty.
  • 56. Violence by institutional staff, for the purpose of disciplining children, includes beatings with hands, sticks and hoses, and hitting children’s heads against the wall, restraining children in cloth sacks, tethering them to furniture, locking them in freezing rooms for days at a time and leaving them to lie in their own excrement.
  • 61. Despite the obligation to ensure that the detention of children shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time contained in article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it was estimated in 1999 that 1 million children are deprived of their liberty. Most of these are charged with minor or petty crimes, and are first-time offenders. Many are detained because of truancy, vagrancy or homelessness. In some countries, the majority of children in detention have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial.
  • 62. Children in detention are frequently subjected to violence by staff, including as a form of control or punishment, often for minor infractions. In at least 77 countries corporal and other violent punishments are accepted as legal disciplinary measures in penal institutions. Children may be beaten, caned, painfully restrained, and subjected to humiliating treatment such as being stripped naked and caned in front of other detainees. Girls in detention facilities are at particular risk of physical and sexual abuse, mainly when supervised by male staff.

The details of this report on children subjected to all kinds of torture once they are labeled by society as ‘juvenile offenders’ may be shocking for many people.

By the way the expression juvenile offenders and even juvenile perpetrators, that sounds even more debasing was coined, not surprisingly so, by United States law enforcement terminology.

The solutions, in my personal view, for a change of such social, legal and political policies for the better will probably come from a joint effort of both international and national expert groups empowered for new policy making, and an effort for open dialogue across the borders of political divergence and cultural diversity.