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.
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.
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.