This was the main conclusion of the 2006 UN Global study on violence against children. In 2015, the UN Special Representative on Violence against Children published the results of a worldwide consultation of children, which highlighted that protection from violence was their second highest priority, right after education.
Children have the right to a life free from violence
States have an obligation, enshrined in international law, to protect children from violence. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right for children to be free from violence, including “physical and mental violence, injury and abuse, neglect and negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits all forms of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), applies to children as well all as to adults. The case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding violence against children clearly establishes that states have a positive duty to take effective measures to protect children from abuse.
The Council of Europe also adopted the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and the Lanzarote Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
Violence against children remains widespread
Violence against children is still too often considered socially acceptable and tolerated in Europe today.
After escaping violence in their home countries, in 2016 refugee children have again had to face physical and psychological violence in Europe’s refugee camps, detention facilities or next to closed borders. Migrant children, especially those who travel unaccompanied, are also particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation. Yet they are often left insufficiently protected by child protection and other public services in countries of transit or refuge.
Perhaps less known is the fate of children affected by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. During my visit to this country in March 2016, I learnt that in 2015 more than 20 children were killed and 40 were injured as a result of the conflict. About 200 000 of the 580 000 children living in non-government controlled areas, close to the front line, are in need of psychosocial support to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorders. Mines and unexploded ordnance represent a major threat for the safety of these children. More than 215 000 children have also been displaced to other parts of the country and many live in precarious conditions.
In my work over the last four years, I also found that children in state care, especially those in institutions, can be exposed to high levels of violence. In a report I published in 2014 following a visit to Romania, I referred to reported abuses of institutionalised children with disabilities, including “slapping; choking; beatings with fists, knees and a cane; crushing the children’s fingers using a door; sexual abuse; and no access to toilets at night time.”
Children with disabilities, in particular those with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, whether institutionalised or not, are three to four times more likely to experience physical and sexual violence or neglect according to 2014 UNICEF research. It is clearly an under-reported problem, and children who complain face the risk of seeing their claims not taken seriously because of their disability, as highlighted by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in a 2015 report.
Racism and social exclusion also result in higher levels of violence against children belonging to minority groups, such as Roma children. The beating and humiliation to which a young Bulgarian Roma boy was subjected in April 2016, for having stated to his aggressor that he was an equal citizen, is a striking example of this. Moreover, forced housing evictions of Roma in various countries are often carried out with violence and leave children homeless and vulnerable to abuse, as I noted in letters addressed to seven member states in 2016. Rejection also affects LGBTI children who are bullied and subjected to violence at home, in schools and other contexts.
Austerity measures have also worsened the situation. During my visits to Portugal (2012), Estonia (2012), and the Netherlands (2014), I noted that increasingly difficult socio-economic circumstances and massive cuts in budgets allocated to supporting children and their families had led to higher risks of domestic violence towards children. They have also jeopardised the capacity of child protection services to detect and prevent violence. Additionally, in several countries children are left behind by parents who go to work abroad. These children are at high risk of neglect and abuse.
Patterns of widespread abuse of children, notably in schools, have been uncovered in several countries. However, victims are still too often in need of adequate reparation and recognition of the harm done to them. In 2014 for example, the ECtHR found Ireland in breach of the ECHR for having failed to protect the applicant from sexual abuse at school but also for the fact that she was unable to have this failure recognised at national level.
Violence in the circle of trust
Armed conflicts, displacement and poverty are far from being the only context for the occurrence of violence. In fact, most violence occurs in different settings of children’s daily life, including their families and close social environment. Thus, the Lanzarote Committee, in charge of monitoring the implementation of the above-mentioned Lanzarote Convention, has focused its first round of monitoring precisely on sexual abuse of children in the circle of trust. In 70-85% of cases of sexual violence on children, perpetrators are known to the child victim.
Moreover, it is still considered in parts of Europe that violence is required to educate children. As of 2016, 18 member states of the Council of Europe still had to achieve full prohibition of corporal punishment in all settings, including the home. In 2015, the European Committee of Social Rights found five member states to be in violation of the European Social Charter for failing to achieve such a prohibition.
Violence in the digital environment
Children are increasingly exposed to violence through the Internet. They risk coming into contact with illegal or harmful content, including pornography, and content inciting substance abuse, suicide and other forms of self-harm. The Internet is also used by predators to contact children under false identities with a view to abusing them. Moreover, children can themselves become perpetrators and inflict harm on others, notably by bullying other children on social media.
Violence against children has a high cost for society
It has multiple consequences on the lives of children, including on their social development, health status –present and future- and education level. Moreover, children exposed to violence are more likely to adopt violent behaviour, thus perpetuating violence across generations.
It is therefore important that ending violence against children is included among the United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals, an acknowledgment that this phenomenon is a serious factor hindering development that requires resolute action by governments. In 2016, the UN initiated a global partnership against violence. Tackling violence against children is also one of the priorities in the Council of Europe Strategy for the rights of the child (2016-2021).
Recognition of the problem is a necessary first step but a stronger political commitment by member states is necessary to protect children from violence in all settings.
What should states do to protect children from violence?
- ratify the Lanzarote and Istanbul conventions.
- improve collection of data on violence against children, including through regular qualitative and quantitative research.
- promote a culture of respect for children’s rights.
- provide adequate support to families so as to prevent domestic violence, the separation of families and the institutionalisation of children.
- adopt a response to violence that reflects its multidimensional nature. The Council of Europe has elaborated Policy guidelines which provide detailed guidance on the type of policies and mechanisms that should be put in place to effectively protect children from violence. They include:
- adopting national strategies with effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms;
- adopting and enforcing legislation prohibiting all forms of violence against children in all settings;
- establishing child-friendly mechanisms where children can report violence safely and in confidence;
- ensuring that effective and child-friendly remedies are available to children victims of violence, including child-friendly justice and institutions such as children’s rights ombudspersons.
- boosting the capacity of child protection services to detect and deal with violence; imposing a duty on professionals in contact with children to report suspected abuse.
Moreover, member states should:
- take effective action to stop the use of violence against migrant and refugee children and their families, notably at borders; provide protection to children at risk of trafficking, in line with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings; ensure the availability for unaccompanied migrant children of guardianship; stop detaining migrant children.
- provide children in care with effective complaint mechanisms and accessible remedies; ensure that independent monitoring of all institutions is regularly carried out; implement deinstitutionalisation strategies.
- take steps to improve the protection of children on the Internet, by enhancing their knowledge about risks for their safety on the Internet and providing them with human rights education.
- provide reparation and justice to victims of large-scale child abuse.
- set up tools to provide victims of violence with rehabilitation. Positive practices exist, such as the Children’s houses model in which children victims of sexual violence can get a multi-disciplinary response that meets their needs.
If we want children to become peaceful citizens who are respectful of human rights and democratic values, we must stop tolerating violations of their rights and create conditions for them to grow free from violence.
List of useful documents:
Council of Europe
- Policy guidelines on integrated national strategies for the protection of children from violence (2009)
- Eliminating violence against children: guidance for strategic vision and action
- Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child (2016-2021)
- Secretary-General study on violence against children (2006)
Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Violence against Children
- Why children’s protection from violence should be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda, a review of consultations with children on the post-2015 agenda, 2014
- “High time to stop violence against children” campaign
- Annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, 2016.
- Hidden in plain sight, a statistical analysis of violence against children, 2014
- Child Alert June 2016, Danger every step of the way, A harrowing journey to Europe for refugee and migrant children.
- Uprooted: the growing crisis for refugee and migrant children, 2016
European Union Fundamental Rights Agency
- Violence against children with disabilities: legislation, policies and programmes in the EU, 2015
- Guardianship systems for children deprived of parental care in the European Union, 2015