Lena Nguyen interviews Stephen Blight, UNICEF’s new Regional Adviser for Children Protection for East Asia and Pacific
Violence against children happens everywhere. In poor and rich countries, in children’s homes, schools, and in their communities. “Children are forced to navigate a virtual minefield of violence, as they progress from infancy through their adolescent years” says Stephen Blight, UNICEF Regional Adviser for Child Protection in East Asia and Pacific. But much of violence against children happens behind closed doors. UNICEF’s global campaign “#ENDviolence” against children calls on us all to make this invisible violence visible.
Because violence against children goes largely unreported, we will never know its true magnitude. But all forms of violence against children – physical and emotional abuse, neglect, exploitation – are prevalent in East Asia and Pacific. “It’s hidden, it takes place in secret and is often a taboo subject,” Stephen says.
“Children who are young may lack the capacity to report violence; they may be afraid of the perpetrator; or when the perpetrator is a family member or somebody known to the family, there may be a reluctance to report to authorities.” Furthermore, many forms of violence – such as bullying, corporal punishment, or sexual harassment – may be widely accepted by society, and seen as an inevitable part of growing up.
It is hard to know exactly what steps need to be taken at the national level to end violence against children without good data about when and where it is occurring. To estimate the prevalence, UNICEF has undertaken a review of evidence on the scale and manifestations of violence in the region, and is supporting national surveys in Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. From the initial findings, a gloomy picture is emerging. “Around four out of ten boys and girls experience at least one form of violence before they reach the age of 18. But often a child experiences many forms at once,” Stephen explains.
We know that experience of violence can have lifelong repercussions for a child. Beyond that, violence inflicts a cost on the entire society. Severe cases of neglect or toxic stress experienced in childhood can negatively influence a child’s brain development and how he or she functions in society as they grow older. Children who are maltreated are more prone to perpetuate violence themselves in later years. And they tend to adopt more risky behaviours, such as substance abuse or risky sexual behaviour.
Expert predictions of the economic cost of violence against children in East Asia and Pacific suggests it amounts to some US$150billion every year, equal to almost 2 percent of the entire region’s gross domestic product (GDP). “Violence against children clearly undermines economic and social development. But we’re not seeing commensurate public investment in preventing it,” said Stephen.
Violence against children is preventable if everyone takes action
“The world pays attention and often demands an immediate response when children are caught up in armed conflicts,” Stephen remarks, referring back to his humanitarian work in child protection in the 1990s in places engulfed in civil conflicts. “But when it comes to violence that takes place in more ordinary family or community contexts, I have learnt that effective systems to intervene are few and far between.”
“I remember a young girl I met in Sudan while visiting a shelter for girls run by a civil society organization (CSO) that worked with the social welfare authorities,” says Stephen. The girl, after being sexually assaulted by her neighbour and becoming pregnant, was ostracized by her family and community.
These are the sorts of situations that sometimes result in the abandonment of the baby. In this case, however, she and her baby found shelter with the CSO, which eventually managed to reconcile her with her mother. “Strengthening local capacity to intervene when families need help is critical to preventing violence against children,” Stephen adds.
Although the fast-developing East Asia and Pacific region is driving global efforts to reach targets like the Millennium Development Goals, social welfare services are underdeveloped and the investments remain low.
“UNICEF works with governments to build the kind of systems that can protect all children from violence,” says Stephen. This translates into helping governments define laws that ban all forms of violence against children, as UNICEF is advocating for in Viet Nam, and working with police and the judiciary to enforce these in ways that don’t do further harm to children in the Philippines. With UNICEF’s technical advice, by 2015 China will have trained 600,000 social workers to respond to the needs of children, including those who are affected by violence.
Sensitizing the public to the risks of violence against children is also at the heart of preventing it. Earlier this summer, the Governments of Indonesia and Viet Nam, together with UNICEF, launched nation-wide campaigns to raise awareness of violence against children. In Indonesia, the Government called on mass media to spread its message about preventing violence and protecting its victims.
Asked why he’s working for UNICEF, Stephen pauses and goes back to his primary school years. He was always the youngest and smallest in the class, an easy target for bullying by bigger boys. “This made me naturally identify with the underdogs and has guided my career choices. I don’t think I’d be happy working on behalf of the powerful,” he muses. “I am much more energized by work that focuses on children and the protection of the most vulnerable.”