While progress has been made, many children in South Asia continue to suffer from discrimination, violence, abuse and sexual and economic exploitation. Many more children face protection risks. Violations of the child's right to protection take place in every South Asian country and are often invisible, under-recognized and underreported. Such violations may occur by acts of omission or commission and occur across all sectors of society regardless of wealth quintile or other determinants. From the evidence available, it is clear that the consequences of child maltreatment can result in lifelong inequities for those children who experience any form of maltreatment and, sometimes, even in their death.
Despite its prohibition by law in most countries of South Asia, child marriage tends to be perpetuated as a social norm: almost half (46 per cent) of women 20-24 years old in South Asia were married before the age of 18, while 18 per cent were married before the age of 15. Children in some countries may even be betrothed or married well before they are 10 years old. Although girls are generally more at risk of child marriage than boys, the countries most at risk of child marriage in the region -Bangladesh, India and Nepal - have significant rates of men 20-24 years old who were first married or in union before the age of 18 – respectively 5 per cent;10 per cent and 16 per cent.
Despite legislation addressing child labour having been enacted in South Asian countries, child labour still persists within the region. 13 per cent of children aged 5-14 in South Asia are engaged in child labour – around 44 million. Of these children, 29 million live in India, where the child labour rate is 12 per cent. Large disparities exist among countries. In Nepal, the country with the worst indicator for child labour among the countries for which data exist, 34 per cent of children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labour. One of the worst forms of labour children are engaged in the region, is sexual exploitation: while girls are generally at greater risk, boys are also at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. Trafficking of children into sexual exploitation or other exploitative situations such as hazardous labour or domestic servitude is also a major concern for all countries of South Asia. The invisible and clandestine nature of trafficking and the lack of data make it difficult to know the exact number of children trafficked. Children are trafficked both within countries, and from one South Asian country to another, for example from Bangladesh and Nepal to India, or from Pakistan to Afghanistan. South Asian trafficked children are also found outside the region, such as in Europe and the Middle East.
Children in all countries in South Asia experience violence in a range of settings including at home and in the family, in schools and educational settings, in care and justice systems, in workplaces and in the communities. Violence against children includes physical and mental abuse and injury, neglect or negligent treatment, exploitation and sexual abuse.
Certain groups of children are particularly vulnerable to physical violence and sexual, emotional and verbal abuse, including children with disabilities - whose disabilities in some instances are themself caused by maltreatment - children belonging to minority groups, children living on the streets, adolescents in conflict with the law, refugee, displaced and migrating children. Generally, boys tend to be at greater risk of physical violence and girls face greater risk of sexual violence and exploitation.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed its concern that juvenile justice systems in South Asia do not aim sufficiently to ensure the dignity of children and reintegrate them into the community. These systems are not distinct from those applied to adults, and they resort too swiftly to institutionalization. Sound data on children detained through justice systems in South Asia are lacking, but evidence shows that juvenile justice systems remain weak across the whole region and that often children in detention have not committed serious offenses.
There are growing concerns about the situation of children outside parental care and the provision of suitable alternatives for them in South Asia. An estimated 43 million girls and boys in South Asia are growing up without one or both of their parents due to the impact of poverty, disability, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict, natural disasters and migration. While some children without parental care live with their extended families in kinship care arrangements, others no longer have their families, have been separated from them, or their families represent a serious danger to their development and/or protection. For these children, States have the responsibility to provide special protection and assistance.
The region is subject to human-made emergencies deriving from insurgency and instability, and natural disasters in the form of floods and earthquakes, which create new protection risks for children and worsen existing ones. Armed conflicts leave children and populations vulnerable to rape, abduction, amputation, mutilation, forced displacement, sexual exploitation and killing. The breakdown of protection systems and mechanisms leaves girls vulnerable to sexual violence (although boys in the region are also at risk) and unwanted pregnancy and threatens children with separation from their families, orphaning, increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, disability and serious, long-term psychosocial consequences. The wide availability of light, inexpensive small arms can contribute to the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, as well as to high levels of violence once conflicts have ended. Children can be enrolled as combatants, cooks, porters, and messengers; girls can also be recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage.
As throughout the world, violence, abuse and exploitation of children are under-reported in South Asia. This is mainly due to guilt, shame, stigma or fear of retaliation as well as acceptance of violence as inevitable and normal. Although good practices have emerged in the region, children continue to lack access to trusted adults to report the violence they experience. These challenges are further compounded by societal attitudes in relation to the status of children. Societal values often perceive that issues concerning children are the individual ‘private troubles’ of the family, rather than ‘public issues’. Social and gender related norms and customs, and socioeconomic factors, such as economic status, class, ethnicity and in some places caste, often at the basis of violence, exploitation and discrimination are very challenging to address.
Although many key international instruments have been ratified, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), its first two Optional Protocols, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and regional instruments exist, such as the Social Charter of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the SAARC Convention on Regional Arrangements for the Promotion of Child Welfare, the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, the SAARC Framework for the Protection, Care and Support of Children Affected by HIV/AIDS, the SAARC Development Goals (SDGs), this commitment is not enough reflected yet in governments’ policies and legislation. Laws are often poorly framed, implemented and enforced.
Since the adoption of the CRC, the situation for children in the South Asia region has improved in many ways: they are born healthier, are more likely to survive their fifth birthday and have greater access to education, safe water and basic sanitation.