Hundreds of millions of children across the globe are victims of exploitation, abuse and violence each year. They are abducted from their homes and schools and recruited into the army. They are trafficked into prostitution rings. They are forced into debt bondage or other forms of slavery.
The consequences can be devastating. Violence and abuse can kill; more often they result in poor physical and mental health, deny a child education, or lead to homelessness, vagrancy, or a sense of hopelessness. Moreover, if and when they have children of their own, abused children are more likely to subject them to some form of abuse.
Though many children suffer in silence, the impact of their abuse is very real. It can be seen in the elevated suicide rates of sexually abused youngsters and in the deaths of young girls as a consequence of genital mutilation/cutting. The global community at times is morally outraged at the exploitation children endure. Yet child protection remedies regularly meet with resistance at all levels of society – from governments to community leaders to parents – because child abuse occurs mostly in private and is associated with criminality and corruption. In many cases, it is privately tolerated and publicly denied.
Since 1986, numerous international standards and mechanisms have been created for child protection. Nonetheless, enormous gaps still exist between international conventions, national laws, and what children experience every day. UNICEF has identified children in six different circumstances for priority attention:
Children in forced and bonded labour. According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 246 million children are engaged in exploitative child labour. Almost three quarters of them work in hazardous environments such as mines or factories, or with dangerous substances such as chemicals and agricultural pesticides. Some 5.7 million of these children work under especially horrific circumstances, including the virtual slavery of bonded labour.
Children without primary caregivers. Children without primary caregivers are deprived of their first source of protection. This can be a permanent or temporary situation, ranging from children who have been separated from their families by war, to those who have been removed by the state from parental care, to those who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS (estimated at 13.4 million children). At any given time, millions of children around the world are without primary caregivers in institutions including boarding schools, hospitals, orphanages, psychiatric units, prisons and detention centres. Separation from parents and family is usually detrimental to the overall well-being and development of a child. In addition, placement in institutions is known to carry risks. In conflict situations, involuntary separation from both family and community protection, sometimes across national borders, greatly increases a child’s risk of exposure to violence, physical abuse and even death. Children who survive often face malnutrition, illness, physical and mental trauma, and stunted cognitive and emotional development.
Children who are trafficked. The use of children as a commodity for labour or sex is a lucrative international trade. Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year. Like other forms of criminal activity, trafficking is an underground activity and is difficult to address. Moreover, families are often unaware of its dangers, believing that their children might have the chance for a better life outside their own country. Frequently, trafficked children are arrested and detained as illegal aliens. Girls as young as 13 (mainly from Asia and Eastern Europe) are trafficked as ‘mail-order brides’. Up to 10,000 women and girls from poorer neighbouring countries have been lured into commercial sex establishments in one South-East Asian nation.
Children who are sexually exploited. Though it is difficult to quantify, about 1 million children (mainly girls, but also a significant number of boys) are exploited every year in the multibillion-dollar sex industry. Commercial sexual abuse of children is fuelled by local, not foreign, demand, with sexual tourism only a small part of the problem. The Internet, however, has the potential to promote sex tourism and child pornography globally and this is a cause of concern. Children are most often sexually abused by those closest to them. Since sexual activity is usually regarded as a private matter, governments and communities alike are often reticent to intervene in cases of sexual exploitation.
Children who are used as soldiers. At any given time, over 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as eight, are exploited in armed conflicts in more than 30 countries around the world. More than 2 million children are estimated to have died as a direct result of armed conflict over the last decade. At least 6 million children have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. Meanwhile, between 8,000 and 10,000 children continue to be killed or maimed by landmines each year.
Children subjected to violence outside of armed conflict. Violence against children, from mild corporal punishment to various forms of torture, can be found everywhere – from homes and schools to detention centres and places of work. It also occurs in all parts of the world, rich and poor alike. In the United Kingdom, for example, babies under one year of age are four times more likely to be murder victims than any other age group; almost all are killed by their parents. Another form of violence condoned by certain societies is that of female genital mutilation/cutting. An estimated 100 million women and girls alive today have undergone some form of this traditional practice. As a result, they face lifelong health problems, including increased risks of dying or becoming disabled while giving birth.
Though it has not been singled out, discrimination is also often a factor in the abuse and exploitation of children. And it is deeply rooted in many societies. Out of 120 million to 150 million disabled children in developing countries, only 3 per cent attend school. Another form of discrimination is the deprivation many children face in their right to inheritance. In many countries, those orphaned routinely lose property rights, and in one Asian country, a child born out of wedlock is legally entitled to inherit only half of what a child born from a registered marriage would receive.