Both the International Day of Non-Violence (since 2007) and World Mental Health Day (since 1992) are coming up in the next 10 days. Yet, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 40 million children aged below 15 still fall victim to one or more forms of violence each year. The resulting traumas fluctuate according to the severity of the violence and the child’s personal experience and can often, in the long run, have severe medical and psychosocial consequences.
In 1997, WHO acknowledged violence as an international health crisis, and its prevention as a globally prioritised undertaking. The enormity of the crisis at the global level is so great that World Mental Health Day in 2002 was devoted to the theme “The Effects of Trauma and Violence on Children and Adolescents.”
Yet many countries still do not respect the human rights of children, and governments do not make violence control a priority to reduce and even eradicate this scourge and its attendant traumas.
- 1 in 2 children experience violence every year
- Every 7 minutes, a child dies as a result of violence
- Some 15 million adolescent girls aged 15–19 have experienced forced sex.
- About 10% of the world’s children are not legally protected from corporal punishment.
- Over 1 in 3 students aged 13–15 experience bullying worldwide.
- Approximately 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 – some 176 million – live with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence.
- Roughly 3 in 4 children between the ages of 2 and 4 – around 300 million – are regularly subjected to violent discipline by their caregivers.
Although the challenge of violence, generally, and of violence against children, specifically, is extensively recognized in the WHO African Region, there has yet to be a large-scale survey conducted on the proper dimension of the problem in terms of root causes, physical and spiritual indicators, case management and preemptive action.
WHO defines violence to children as child maltreatment in all its forms, i.e., physical and emotional maltreatment, sexual molestation, abandonment or neglect, commercial and other forms of exploitation, causing actual or potential harm to the health of the child, their survival, their development or their dignity in the context of a relation of responsibility, confidence or power.
Child maltreatment often comes with verbal violence, which entails denying children their personality, throwing abusive words at them, prohibiting them from enquiring about their rights, or preventing them from carrying out their activities. Such emotional abuse results in demeaning and denying the child, and the resulting trauma could be medical, causing physical wounds, shock, or severe lesions. Effects could also be psychiatric, leaving a child with memories of a painful event deep-rooted in their brain.
At a WHO conference held in Geneva, in 2001, on the health sector’s response to sexual violence, a survey performed in many countries in the region showed that 36% of girls and 29% of boys say they have been victims of sexual abuse at a young age. In 1991, Save the Children, a nongovernmental organisation issued a document on 700 cases of sexual abuse of children in a single country.
Sexual violence has profound consequences such as physical injury, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, and indirect consequences like alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual deviance, which can be seen as rebellion and left untreated for years. Sexual violence, especially towards a child, can also cause fear, anxiety, depression, and other disorders involving behaviour, sleep, feeding, and speech. It may even result in self-mutilation, attempted suicide, or suicide.
Female genital mutilation, considered not only a form of sexual violence but also a violation of children’s rights, is such a massive problem in Africa that the WHO has drawn up a responsive plan of action for the African Region.
Children subjected to violence usually experience this within the context of family, the community, or a specific geographical area due to war. In times of war, children exposed to different forms of violence suffer traumas that can disrupt their development process, activate major psychical disorders, and set them on a path of delinquency or even a life of crime.
Many children who are not victims themselves but witnesses to the perpetration of violence can consequently develop violent inclinations themselves. According to studies, such children are likelier to become violent with their partners or children when they become adults than their peers growing up in non-violent homes.
The more extensive the trauma suffered from violence, the more severe the resulting mental and psychosocial difficulties. The challenges are further exacerbated by inadequate prevention activities, particularly a shortage of accessible and affordable treatment.
How can the world end violence against children? By spreading knowledge of what works to prevent violence, assisting those who have suffered generations of violence, and ensuring that solving this problem remains a top priority for governments, communities, and organisations worldwide by making our voices heard.
While we hope that one day there will be an end to violence, the team at HealingLeaves aims to educate the adults responsible for children regarding the impact of trauma resulting from violence and empower them to assist the children in their care with the best possible tools.
‘We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.’ – Nelson Mandela.