A new report from the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, delivers a grim picture of life for many of the world’s children. One-fifth of all homicide victims around the world are under 20 years old, and 120 million girls under age 20 have been forced to have sex. Violence remains a leading cause of preventable injury and death among children. Children around the world are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional violence on a regular basis.
Gang violence and ongoing conflicts in South and Central America mean that homicide is the leading cause of death among males between the ages of 10 and 19 in countries such as Panama, Venezuela, El Salvador, Brazil and Guatemala. Among developed countries, the United States had the highest child homicide rate, due to the prevalence of firearms.
As for girls younger than 20, they also die young in many parts of the world. Nigeria alone had 13,000 young women who died violent deaths in 2012, and Brazil had 11,000 violent deaths, or roughly 30 a day. For girls, sexual violence was very widespread. An estimated 120 million girls, or about 1 in 10 worldwide, has been forced into sex acts. One in three married adolescent girls, around 84 million, has been victims of violence committed by their husbands or partners.
While the prevalence of violence is extremely high in places such as Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe — where partner violence ranges from 50 to 70 percent — other countries in Europe such as Switzerland, found that 22 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys aged 15 to 17 had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence.
The report did not present much optimism for changing these problems because violence in daily life was so entrenched. The report found close to half of all girls aged 15 to 19 think a husband is sometimes justified in hitting or beating his wife. Around 60 percent of children under 14 were subjected to physical punishment by caregivers, and one-third of students between the ages of 13 and 15 reported involvement in physical fights. Around one-third also experienced bullying. Social norms that tolerate violence have refused to change. It remains a daily experience for millions of children.
Even as the global mortality rate for infants has dropped by one-half since 1990, more children are surviving childhood diseases, poor nutrition and bad health care only to encounter violence or death during their later childhood years.
The report does an excellent job of making violence visible. That is the first step to stopping the scourge of violence against children.
The next step is for governments to find the political will to take action and find solutions. Children have the right to grow up free from violence. Violence, the study shows once again, perpetuates violence.
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