#BringBackOurGirls: time to get serious about drivers of violence

The abduction of more than 200 high school girls in northern Nigeria has touched a global nerve. The twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has generated millions of posts. UNICEF and other agencies have issued special statements. Superpowers are offering to send in military aid.

It’s not the first time a horrendous act of violence against children has moved the world. I am pretty sure it won’t be the last. These moments of global concern about violence affecting children are usually brief, yet sadly, they don’t often result in level-headed responses.

A child formerly associated with armed forces or groups  in Central African Republic holds her mother's hand.

A child formerly associated with armed forces or groups in Central African Republic holds her mother’s hand. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-2308/Matas

The acts of violence that make the headlines often have to do with deeply rooted and longstanding social norms—cultural, political and economic—that make girls and boys around the world vulnerable to many forms of violence, including forced early marriage, as well as child trafficking and abuse of children in armed conflict.

When violence stays in the headlines there is a risk that we can miss an opportunity to focus in on the systemic social drivers of it. Policies and programmes are sometimes abandoned or hastily changed. Social protection services are pressured to drop what they are doing and deliver immediate results. Millions of dollars may be thrown into hasty policy re-directions based on thin evidence of success.

What can make a difference? Believe it or not, one of the most important tools in ending violence against children is better research that improves understanding of what drives these violent outbursts, as well as the hidden ones that go on day in and day out around the world.

What? More research? This is a crisis. Grab a shovel, pitchfork and scythe. How on earth will research #BringBackOurGirls?

UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti is gearing up for a major four-year action research project in Italy, Peru, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, which aims to significantly increase understanding of what drives violence against children and how best to respond to it. A global team of top child protection researchers will analyze evidence on effective responses and rigorously measure their impact on children. The aim is to generate a substantial multi-country knowledge base to help build more effective interventions.

In 2013 UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Liam Neeson joined UNICEF in urging people to speak out when they witness or suspect violence against children. More information about the #ENDviolence initiative is available here: http://www.unicef.org/endviolence/ © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0512/Toledano

In 2013 UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Liam Neeson joined UNICEF in urging people to speak out when they witness or suspect violence against children. More information about the #ENDviolence initiative is available here. © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0512/Toledano

Violence against children is a constant which we still poorly understand.   It is pervasive: in the homes, neighborhoods, and schools where children are supposed to be safe. It is more often committed by the very people children ought to be able to turn to for protection. Growing evidence suggests 1 out of 4 children experience serious sexual, physical or emotional violence or abuse in their lifetimes. My gut feeling tells me it’s much higher, with most incidences going unreported.

Some progress has been made on understanding violence against women, and there is much to learn from that in relation to children. However, too often theories about the dynamics of violence fail to take into account the extraordinary implications of age and its links with gender. Children grow, their capacities and vulnerabilities evolve and change, and, for example, what drives violence against a two year old girl may be quite different than that which affects a 14 year old boy, with different societal and individual consequences.

Violence is nurtured by a culture of silence and the complex interplay of age-old assumptions on gender, age and authority. It is a social disease – and it happens in every country. Once we understand the underlying patterns of this virus, our policies and programmes are more likely to help stop it.

Let’s unite and raise our voices in an effort to #BringBackOurGirls. But let’s also get to work on generating solid evidence on how to prevent and reduce the complicated phenomenon of human violence against the young and vulnerable, and in the process protect millions of children.

14 replies

    • GENO Hope Alive Foundation: Thanks for the re-blog! We need to #BringBackOurGirls urgently, AND get more serious about finding long term solutions to the global pandemic of violence against children.

  1. This is not so much about violence as it is about religion. The root of evil in this case and in many other cases of grave violations of human rights is religion. The blind faith of people in their God and the blind belief that their God is better than others. Research won’t help in this case – the people committing these crimes are not interested in research or reason or common sense. They are deaf, dumb and blind. The only research you can do here is using modern technology to track them down and bring them to justice and the girls back in safety.

    • Kelly: The point is with robust research – the kind we are trying to raise funds to do at the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti – we can generate solid evidence about the range of factors that drive violence affecting children, in stead of making broad assumptions, which may, or may not, be based on reality. I do agree that law enforcement is essential, but again research, not guesswork, is going to help law enforcement do a better job as well.

    • Kelly, Social norms can help maintain group harmony and keep pro-social and anti-social tendencies in balance. Moral values are embedded in religiosity and many of these morals intersect and interface with social norms. We need to unpack the meaning of these norms (social, religious, etc.) in order to understand how they operationalize on the ground. This sort of ‘science’ when applied in the very domains where girls and boys live can help us build more effective prevention interventions.

      We definitively need to bring the girls of Nigeria (and their little sisters around the globe) back to safety, but equally important is to understand how best to protect all children in their own homes and communities. Rescue is important but so too is our willingness to confront why children are so vulnerable with the end goal of building prevention interventions that will stop this from happening again. The Multi Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children, at the Office of Research-Innocenti, has this as its ultimate goal.

  2. I couldn’t agree more on the need of robust research generating solid evidence on a phenomenon which remains very often hidden and unknown in its real roots. However, if this is valid about violence in general, I am questioning whether Nigerian girls kidnapping can be interpreted using only this layer. We cannot ignore that those criminals kidnapped not boys, or boys and girls, but girls in school only. The symbolic meaning counts! The use of gender based violence against women in conflict situation is not new, and it goes back to one of the most ancestral components of any society: the power relationship between men and women, often based on stereotypes, myths, biases, that concretizes in controlling women’s bodies, culture, behavior and, in one word, their lives. The gender component – I guess – is key when violence against children is used not in interpersonal relationships, but as a weapon of war against the enemy. Could research on changing behavior/social norms be a second layer to consider in cases like this?

    • Patrizia: You are absolutely right to highlight the role of gender in the effort to generate better understanding of the drivers of violence against children. The UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti research project is beginning to reveal that gender and age (possible also power/authority roles) interact in a complex and evolving way as children grow and mature. Gender has been considered a key element in understanding violence in families and violence toward children, but evidence is starting to tell us that it is not as simple as male violence against female victims. Gender relationships are probably dynamic and shifting.

  3. My concern is the increase of children diflement in our region both boys and girls.most of caregivers are leaving their duties to third parties hence the children end up confused and in the longrun they are lowesteemed.iwonder!whya boychild isleftout.

    • Hannah: You are getting at something very important here. Children left behind by parents who leave home for jobs almost always suffer much higher vulnerability to many kinds of maltreatment. Should the burden be solely on the worker? What is the role of the employer who is benefitting from the labor of a parent who is separated from his or her children?

  4. I am moved by Dale’s statement in the main article: “Violence is nurtured by a culture of silence and the complex interplay of age-old assumptions…” Sad, but this is true, whether one is talking about developed or developing countries. Having worked in a writing support program in America for teenage girls from underserved communities, I would guess that more than half, perhaps 3/4, of these girls had suffered abuse of some kind. And this was New York City! Their recovery was often hindered by some of the same factors — starting with fear of speaking out and the assumption that something was wrong with THEM and, most painfully, that they were ALONE. Imagine some kind of program that would begin to unite girls around the world, so that they might become international support for each other in these shared experiences. No doubt such programmes would begin to create not only a wave of support but also future women that would no longer tolerate such circumstances, either toward themselves or their future children. UNICEF’s commitment to innovative technology in the filed of communications–as seen in many of the articles in this blog–is a perfect stepping stone!

    • Pamela: I love the idea of uniting girls around the world in an international wave of support. Have you been following #YesAllWomen? I believe it has taken off mostly in the US, but I find that hashtag – still collecting thousands of comments per hour as of this writing – shows the incredible power of simply declaring your experience. It seems to be a kind of wave that could go international. I hope it may serve as a wave of reality for the many men who can be respectful and non-violent but are simply immersed in the violence that is all around us. What do you think?

      • Yes, Dale, thanking you for pointing out that #YesAllWomen is exponentially exploding on Twitter as we speak. (Readers can check it out on CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/27/living/california-killer-hashtag-yesallwomen/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

        This is definitely a start. I love several things about this burgeoning movement . One is that if you scroll through all the entries of the hashtag #YesAllWomen on Twitter, you will read about so many different aspects of the problem.You will read about so many different experiences of disrespect, which is the root of violence towards women (violence not only being physical, but emotional as well). There is a fire in this explosion of expression. And I love that men have been supporting it in Tweets as well.

        This may very well be a local wave that gives birth to a planetary one.

        What I was envisioning, though, was an intimate partnership between girls of developed countries passionate about this topic and those of developing ones–each supporting the other. Because, lack of self-esteem is a global issue–developed or developing country. Some of it comes from being disempowered. Some of it comes from not knowing how to empower oneself through empowering others.

        So, I invite you, Dale and UNICEF, and all those reading this blog, to ponder with me: what could this global sisterhood among girls against violence really look like on an intimate, real-time level? “Sister” schools? Adoptive communities? Joint creative projects that would involve both sides? Youth-run (women-run) media that includes investigative reporting and policy change? More female ambassadors solely dedicated to the rights of women and children? Actresses refusing to take part in films that exploit violence?

        Nobody can do this alone and no one was meant to do it alone. I believe we are in the midst of a profound shift in consciousness on this planet, one on which the very survival of our shared home depends. And UNICEF is correct: women’s and children’s rights are at the very forefront of it.

        But ultimately I would like to see #YesAllHumans!

      • Pamela: Your vision of an intimate, empowering partnership between and among girls from different nations and cultures is inspiring. My own experience of people to people partnerships organized between “developed” and “developing” communities, while wonderful and educational in the moment, are ultimately a bit stilted and fleeting. Having worked on the issue of violence against children in several developing countries a few key principles for community based change always emerge: 1. All local authorities have to decide to work together as one team and share information quickly and efficiently – elected officials, justice, police, teachers, health-professionals, social workers; 2. Education and awareness raising has to be 360 degrees in the community. Children need to be educated about what abuse is, parents need to be educated on communication and parenting skills, police/prosecutors/judges need to be educated on child rights sensitive law enforcement, teachers need to be educated on recognizing the signs of abuse. I could go on.
        Ultimately, all of this, however, is palliative until we can generate much more scientific evidence about the dynamics and drivers of violence affecting children.

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