Who perpetrates violence against children? Five findings from a global review

Today, global leaders gather in Stockholm, Sweden for the first ever Agenda 2030 Solutions Summit to end violence against children. The summit brings together governments, UN, civil society, academics and children themselves to share solutions to “prevent and respond to violence against boys and girls.” Underlying this meeting is a growing awareness and recognition that violence is pervasive and that levels represent gross human rights violations.

The occasion raises the question – How much do we actually know about the global levels of violence against children?

Up until now, our best estimates come from a 2016 systematic review which summarizes data from 36 reports including 112 studies over 96 countries. The review concludes that globally over half of children aged 2-17 have experienced violence and that minimum estimates suggest past-year physical, sexual or emotional violence against children of 50% or more of children in Asia, Africa, and Northern America. While these statistics are alarming, and a crucial step in measuring the magnitude of the problem, they leave many critical questions unanswered. For example, at what age are children most at risk? Should we be targeting girls or boys or both – and who is perpetrating this violence?

…for the first time, we understand how children may be at more or less risk across their life course, according to their sex and in different settings. The implications for prevention are huge.

A new study published in BMJ Pediatrics gets us one step closer to understanding what we are up against. Led by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with UNICEF collaborators (among others), we conducted a meta-analysis and systematic review – disaggregating measures by perpetrator, age and sex of children. This means, for the first time, we understand how children may be at more or less risk across their life course, according to their sex and in different settings. The implications for prevention are huge.

How did researchers develop these estimates? In total, 643 studies from 171 countries, containing 13,830 separate age-specific and sex-specific past-year prevalence estimates were included in the analysis. Only studies of sufficient scale to be representative were included, focusing on international datasets collected across many countries. In addition, estimates were separated by type of violence for all children 0-19 years. To make prevalence estimates across studies comparable, researchers ran random effects meta-regressions. This means estimates were adjusted for the quality of the data, variation in definitions of violence and made to represent country population structures through use of weights (by region-specific, age-specific and sex-specific population data).

Although impossible to summarize all results here, a few key findings stand out:

  1. The most common perpetrators of physical and emotional violence across a range of ages are household members. An important finding indicates that violence inside the home, perpetrated by a caregiver or other household member, is the most common form of violence experienced by both boys and girls. While prevalence of both emotional and physical violence is above 50% for most ages, emotional violence is more widespread than physical violence. Further, while levels of past-month emotional violence remain relatively constant over age group (at about 60%-70%), levels of past-month physical violence appear to decline slowly as age increases. While at age 2 about 60%-70% of boys and girls experience physical violence from a caregiver or household member, this has decreased to about 40%–50% at age 14.
  2. Boys tend to report experiencing school-based violence at higher rates than girls, driven by physical violence. The second most common form of violence is that perpetrated at school by other students. Boys appear to report higher levels of past-year physical violence as compared to girls, whereas both sexes report similar levels of emotional violence. This could be in part due to the higher proportion of boys who attend school globally across the full age range examined. Younger age groups (8-11 years) appear to report higher levels of both emotional and physical bullying (between 70%-80%) as compared to older age groups (12-18 years, estimated at around 50% prevalence).
  3. Even at ages as low as 15–19, girls suffer significant rates of intimate partner violence. Based on available data, intimate partners are the third most common source of violence against girls. Physical and emotional violence from dating/intimate partners for girls are about 7% of all girls at age 15 and 13% at age 19. Sexual violence is also non-trivial at 5-7% of 18 and 19 year olds. These figures increase if we consider only girls in partnerships. Unfortunately, a lack of data mean we cannot compute comparable figures for boys. These findings underscore the tendency for partner violence to start young and the need for prevention programs to tackle drivers of violence before marital partnerships are formed.
  4. Children are at high-risk of violence from teachers and authority figures. There are too little data to compute global estimates for violence perpetrated by teachers and authority figures. However, available data summarized from four studies among children aged 9-18 years shows rates of violence perpetrated by teachers and authority figures are very high. For example, more than 75% of 9-16 year olds reporting past-year physical violence from a teacher in Uganda. While we have limited understanding of the magnitude of this problem across settings, it is clear that school environments must be targeted for prevention programming.
  5. There are too few estimates of sexual violence for boys to understand the true magnitude of the problem. Despite the impressive range of data sources available, huge data gaps still remain. For example, due to the low number of data collection efforts that include questions on sexual violence against boys, we know little about who perpetrates such violence against them and across age ranges. There are also few estimates from violence perpetrated by strangers, and of outcomes of neglect or witnessing violence in the home. It is critical for the global community to close these data gaps and invest in reliable and ethical data collection efforts in the coming decade.
© UNICEF/UN077245/FoxA woman who’s family has been affected by violence holds her head as she talks to Social Worker in her home in Kandal province of Cambodia. Overall, the South-East Asia Region had very few estimates of violence that met inclusion criteria for the global review, compared with other regions.

Taken together, the findings demonstrate that violence against children is pervasive. It also demonstrates that children of all ages and both boys and girls are at risk for experience of violence in multiple settings (including in the home). This reality means that multi-sectoral, evidence-based programs which address underlying vulnerabilities or which address multiple spheres of children’s lives are urgently needed.

The findings also shine a light on the many data gaps. These are not only apparent across typologies of violence, but also in regional distribution. Overall, Europe had substantially more data which met inclusion criteria, and the South-East Asia Region had very few estimates, compared with other regions. Investment is needed to close these data gaps, and to provide sufficient baselines to comparably monitoring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Further, methodological questions remain regarding variation in prevalence obtained from different reporting sources. There is a pressing need to understand optimal methods for soliciting violence experience in the most ethical and safe way possible to protect children from further harm. Without these investments, it will be impossible to monitor if and how violence is reduced across regions and groups equitably towards a world free from childhood violence.

Karen Devries is with the Child Protection Research Group and the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Claudia Cappa (Data and Analytics) and Amber Peterman (Office of Research – Innocenti) are in the Division of Data, Research and Policy (DRP) at UNICEF. The full list of authors and acknowledgement associated with the article are available online via the open access version of “Who perpetrates violence against children? A systematic analysis of age-specific and sex-specific data” in BMJ Pediatrics.

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    1. Hi Nozipho,

      The article itself is downloadable along with Appendix material here: http://bmjpaedsopen.bmj.com/content/bmjpo/2/1/e000180.full.pdf

      In addition, Karen presented this paper at the Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum last year, and her ppt is downloadable here: http://www.svri.org/forums/forum2017/Presentations/20%20September/19.%20Panel%20Understanding%20Violence%20against/4.%20Karen%20Devries%20SVRI%202017_Age%20Sex%20Perp_Devries.pdf

      I hope this helps!