Violence and Children

Sustainable development is about enabling people to work together to create long-lasting improvements to living standards in their communities. Children’s participation is essential to this process. They are the future, and can often provide adults with a different, valuable perspective on a range of issues. Providing opportunities for them to access information and articulate their views in their own way is integral to our work

What happened to my rights?

Violence against teenagers takes a horrifying number of forms. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children should be protected from violence. Yet it occurs in the home, at school, in institutions such as orphanages, on the street, and in detention. A lot of violence takes place behind closed doors, and teenagers do not report it for fear of retribution. If the adult committing violence is someone whom they should have a right to trust: a parent, carer, or teacher, it is even harder for them to speak out. Cultures of violence that are deeply entrenched in many societies mean that neither the adolescent nor abuser see anything wrong; they see violence as a normal and deserved punishment, and the boy or girl feels guilty for whatever they have done to ‘deserve’ this treatment.

Factors contributing towards violence are complex. They include the absence of a primary caregiver, normalisation of violence in the media, unequal gender relations, social norms that do not respect teenagers’ rights, drugs, alcohol, crime, and cultures of impunity. The growing availability of firearms, in both urban and rural areas around the world, increases the lethality of violence. When guns are present, teenagers are more likely to die from violence inflicted on them.

Even if young people are not physically injured, violence against them has a devastating long-term effect and can derail their development. It can destroy their ability to learn or willingness to go to school, and can prompt them to run away from home, which increases the risk to them. It ruins their self-confidence and can undermine their ability to be good parents in the future. Girls and boys who experience violence lose their trust in people, and have an increased risk of depression and suicide in later life1.

Violence against children of all ages in the home occurs across the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 40 million children below the age of 15 suffer from abuse and neglect, and require health and social care. According to UNICEF, a survey in Egypt showed 37 per cent of children reporting being beaten or tied up by their parents, and 26 per cent reporting injuries such as fractures, loss of consciousness or permanent disability as a result of this. In India, 36 per cent of mothers told interviewers in a survey that they had hit their children with an object of some sort within the last six months. Ten per cent said they had kicked their child; 29 per cent had pulled their child’s hair; 28 per cent had hit the child with their knuckles; and three per cent said they had punished their child by putting hot peppers in their mouth2. The problem is the widespread social acceptance of corporal punishment as a form of discipline. When teenagers from Freetown in Sierra Leone were encouraged to speak out about their concerns and

Gang violence

Another way in which adolescents suffer and inflict violence is when they get involved with street gangs. Street children, school drop-outs and adolescents living in poverty, are attracted to gang life, which offers an identity and a sense of power. Across the cities of Central America, gang culture is strong. It has been estimated that at least 25,000 children belong to gangs in El Salvador alone7. These countries have relatively recently emerged from vicious wars which fostered a culture of violence. Now the gangs have been boosted since the US changed its laws so that immigrants who have committed crimes are deported: this means that those who had spent time in the gangs of Los Angeles have now taken their violent allegiances back with them. Once teenagers and children are involved it is very hard to get out, and they are rapidly drawn into violent crime. Public opinion is horrified by the rise of gangs across Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. So there is wide support for the harsh measures that governments take against them, with teenagers put in prison because of their tattoos, and killings by police and private death squads attracting little official condemnation.

In May this year 105 prisoners, mostly young gang members with the Mara Salvatrucha gang, were locked into a prison in the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras and burned alive8. (See Section 3 On the street) Darwin, from Tegucigalpa in Honduras, was good at school and wanted to become a doctor. But when he was 14, he joined the 18th Street gang, which is one of the two most powerful gangs. “Darwin met a girl from the 18th Street gang at a party. The gang was a new world. They promised clothes, shoes, gold chains, and the chance to be a leader, a boss. But it was all a lie. When you start, the gang gives you a better identity, but when you try to get out you can’t. He had “18” tattooed on his chin, and his arms were full of tattoos,” said his mother Sara. Darwin started to get in trouble with the police, and was arrested several times. He died when he was 16, two days after being arrested and reportedly beaten by the police. His mother believes the police executed him, and that witnesses are too afraid to speak out. She herself has reported receiving death threats9.

In areas of high urban violence, poor teenagers and those on the streets are at risk of involvement in violent drug factions. In 2002, it was estimated that more than half of the 10,000 employees of the drug gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro were under the age of 18. The level of armed violence there is so high that the lives of adolescents involved in the militarised drug gangs are closer to those of child soldiers than gang members. In some periods, there have been more firearms deaths in Rio de Janeiro city than in gun battles in Colombia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, or Israel. Between 1987 and 2001, eight times as many minors died from firearms injuries in Rio de Janeiro, than Israeli and Palestinian children died in the conflict over the Occupied Territories during the same period10.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to gun culture if they have grown up knowing no other way. The proliferation of guns across conflict and non-conflict zones, cities and countryside, continues. The phenomenon of youth gangs in El Salvador has spilled over into schools, with coalitions of high schools fighting each other, using knives and modified belt buckles but also guns11. In South Africa, boys told interviewers that they felt girls prefer men who have guns. However, girls in the same community said that boys used guns to coerce them into sexual relations. Male violence against girls and women is reinforced by cultures of weaponry; the gun becomes an extension of male power12. Wherever guns are present, in the home, at school or on the street, violence is more likely to be lethal.

In 2003 the UN Secretary-General appointed an independent expert to lead a global study on violence against children, looking into its prevalence, nature and causes, with recommendations for action. Non-governmental organisations are contributing to the study, which will take children’s views into account13.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 19

1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Article 39 States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.

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