THERE is something wrong with the state of Asia’s children. A shockingly large number are not enjoying carefree, happy childhood, but, enduring, often brutal, fast track transition to adulthood.
Globally, three of four children suffer physically or emotionally abusive violence: from corporal punishment to bullying, neglect, rape, even murder. In East Asia, over 70 per cent of children endure corporal punishment at home, while 34 per cent reported being bullied at school. These are the findings of a recently released report “Ending Violence in Childhood”.
The problem of violence in childhood is far greater than most people realise. Patchy statistics, social acceptance, children’s fear and stigma of reporting abuse leads to widespread underreporting. Many vulnerable children pretend abuse isn’t happening, blame themselves, or feel unable to seek help in the face of a powerful abuser.
Children who experience violence are more likely to suffer depression when they grow up, turn to drugs, endure poor heath and take their own lives. Kids who are bullied or beaten at school avoid attending, harming their education and future prospects.
The statistics tumble out of the research in an avalanche of misery: in 2015, 1.7 billion children (three quarters of all children worldwide) experienced inter-personal violence in the previous year. This included 1.3 billion children who endured corporal punishment, 261 million children who were violently abused by their peers, 55 million adolescent girls aged 15-19 who had experienced physical violence since age 15, 18 million girls in the same age group who were sexually assaulted, and 100,000 children who were murdered.
But, within this disturbing picture, hope can be found. In East Asia, for example, there are relatively few physical fights at school, while overall levels of violence are far lower than in South Asia, or Africa.
The report finds that childhood violence is lower in countries that are committed to a human development agenda that prioritises child health and education, particularly of girls. Moreover, many developing countries tackle the problem well; suggesting poor countries don’t have to wait until they are rich to end childhood violence.
The key to success is recognising that violence is not a private affair: governments have a duty to protect the rights of their citizens, and this includes a child’s right to live free from fear.
The opportunities to prevent violence fall into three categories. Firstly, building individual capacities, for example, by ensuring children are given life skills and sex education; while parents and caregivers, backed by knowledge and services, are empowered to create safe, supporting, and stimulating spaces for care-giving.
Secondly, violence prevention must be embedded in social services. Schools must become violence-free, end corporal punishment and crack down on bullying. Health professionals, in particular first responders, who are likely to witness an injured child, need to know how and when to report suspected abuse. And, authorities need to find ways to avoid sending children into institutional care, where the chances of being abused are high.
Thirdly, governments must tackle the root causes of violence, which are bound up in issues of gender inequality and social norms that legitimise violence.
Perhaps the most immediate, task, though, is to break the silence. Violence needs to be spoken about and made visible, only then can the scale of the problem be understood, taboos shattered, and the cycle broken. This requires both individual courage, and better national monitoring and reporting systems.
Reducing and eradicating childhood violence isn’t a distant dream. There is nothing inevitable about a suffering child; many childhoods are glorious. Leaders of governments and communities need to take this issue more seriously, implement practical policies to prevent violence, and ensure that children enjoy the happy, peaceful upbringings they surely all deserve.
AK Shiva Kumar is a regular contributor to UNDP’s Human Development Reports and has served as the director of the International Centre for Human Development in New Delhi, as well as senior adviser to the Unicef India Country Office.
Vivien Stern was an independent member of the UK Parliament House of Lords and has served on a number of Parliamentary Committees, including the EU Select Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.