Invisible emergency

  • The time to take action on violence against children is now

SEP 14 -

As the country celebrates National Children’s Day today, 14 year-old Shanti (name changed) in Sunsari will have little to cheer about. A desperately poor girl from a rural village in search of a job as a domestic; she was held captive for a month and raped repeatedly by a man who promised her a job.

It was the neighbours who heard her screams and alerted the authorities and subsequently rescued her. If they hadn’t, there is no saying what else might have happened.

There are many different forms of violence against children. However, the reticence of communities to report violations to authorities — especially if sexual in nature — and the lack of a rigorous system to collect and analyse data, undermine the effort to define the magnitude and prevalence of this phenomenon.

Despite the many campaigns and efforts on the ground, trafficking of young girls, both inside and outside Nepal, continues. Criminal organisations flourish and prosper, taking advantage of the poverty of their victims and the state’s inability to stop it.

According to an ILO study at least 12,000 Nepalese girls are trafficked annually to India, the majority of them into brothels. Another study estimated that there are at least 11-13,000 girls and women currently working in the “night entertainment industry” in the Kathmandu valley.

The more extreme forms of violence against children including the worst forms of child labour and trafficking receive media attention but the more hidden forms of violence go unreported and are wrapped up in a culture of silence.

Take the case of 14-year-old Rekha in Chitwan who can only complain to the listeners of the radio programme Saathi Sanga Man Ka Kura about how her best friend’s father makes unwanted advances towards her, and threatens violence if she should disclose it.

Much violence against children remains hidden for many reasons. The biggest is fear: children are afraid to report incidents of violence against them. In many cases parents are afraid of the stigma or ostracism that might befall them, particularly in cases of a sexual nature.

A recent UNICEF study on adolescent girls identified sexual harassment as the biggest concern in their lives — in schools and in their communities. 

Corporal punishment is also overwhelmingly practiced and a UNICEF study noted that at least 83 per cent of children in the mid and Far Western regions of the country said they had been subjected to violence.

Despite the lack of empirical data, we do know that protection violations occur within families and communities; they occur in the work place and in institutions, and they are often perpetrated by those responsible for the wellbeing and protection of children.

Approximately three million children aged 5 to 17 years work and try to supplement their family’s income, and often renounce the right to a childhood. Many of them remain hidden and work behind walls in factories or within families and face exploitation and abuse.

Nepal is already home to a generation of children who grew up exposed to violence during the civil war. Many of this generation of youth can now view violence as a norm, whether under political themes or as a form of protest to get their voices heard.

The United Nations Secretary General’s Report on Violence Against Children of October 2006 notes that many governments have undertaken extensive efforts in the field of legal reform to address child maltreatment. But these efforts contrast sharply with the frequently minimal investment in policies, and in programmes to document the epidemiology of child maltreatment, to carry out interventions to address its underlying causes, and to monitor the impact of interventions.

There are a number of reasons for this gap between a human rights-based commitment to prevention and the actual investment in prevention policies and programmes.  One reason is that maltreatment of children for many people remains a highly sensitive and emotive issue, and somethingthat is not easily discussed in private, let alone in public debate.  Then again, preventing child maltreatment is not a political priority, despite the scale of theproblem and an increasing awareness of its high social costs. The relative lackof political will has been exacerbated by a lack of understanding of the serious,life-long health impacts of child maltreatment, its burden on society and its implicationsfor the costs of health services.

In addition, investment in child maltreatment is hampered by a pervasive demand for immediatereturns on public investment — a demand that cannot always be met by prevention programmes, which sometimes take years to produce their intended effects. Intensifying child maltreatment prevention therefore requires that the seriousness of the problem should be understood.

There is no doubt that exposure to violence affects children’s studies and prevents them from reaching their full potential. Imagine the thousands of children as adults with limited skills, and equally limited opportunities to improve their lives.

That is why we must act now.

We need to give the highest visibility and political importance to the prevention of violence against girls and boys,including, for example, the launching of public information campaigns and education strategiesto raise awareness about the scope and negative consequences of all forms of violence,. 

We need to put in place appropriate policies and legislation across several sectors, such as education, health, justice, and protection services to prevent violence, support child victims and strengthen reporting, referral and response.

We must seek to establish, analyse and regularly monitor, the extent of different forms of violence against children, bycollecting disaggregated data by sex, age and other relevant factors. 

We need to strengthen and develop further all forms of international and cross-border cooperation, including prevention of criminal activities, in order to prevent and combat all forms of violence against children and to ensure that perpetrators of such violence do not escape justice and receive appropriate treatment.

And, finally, we need to create opportunities for children and young people to play a more active role in recognising and addressing all forms of violence appropriately.

Until we tackle all these issues head on this invisible social emergency will continue in perpetuity.

Singer is the Country Representative for UNICEF, Nepal


Posted on: 2012-09-14 08:14