An unorthodox way of investment
Is it the right time to end violence against children?
Violence undermines every other investment in children. Without addressing violence, we will never capitalize on global efforts around education, health, and sustainable development.
An estimated one in five children in Europe fall victim to some form of sexual violence1 while in Albania, over 60% of all sexual violence cases recorded by the state police annually, are committed against children.
Child sexual abuse is not only a horrific crime; it is often perpetrated along with other serious forms of child rights violations. GRETA reports2 just confirm these gruesome statistics – the majority of (potential) victims of trafficking are children and girls, exploited sexually, pushed into early marriage, and forced labor.
The experience of violence at an early age not only leads to devastating, often life-long consequences, but it is also estimated to have a massive economic impact globally, with costs from the consequences of physical, psychological, and, sexual violence against children reaching as high as $7 trillion3 . No such estimation was undertaken for Albania, but there are hundreds of real human stories that perhaps speak of a more alarming message: a message that is yet to be heard.
To amplify the voices of children, and to promote a culture of speaking up about violence and abuse, especially sexual violence, UNICEF Albania started in September 2020, the national awareness campaign #TëBesoj (I believe you, I trust you). #TëBesoj collects and shares real stories of child sexual abuse and travels across all major Albanian cities and towns. It conveys the message that children should be heard when they report sexual abuse, and it urges authorities to prioritize policies and actions that proactively prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.
Drita’s story is one of them. She was born in a family of 8 in a small village in northern Albanian. Drita attended only six years of compulsory education and then dropped out of school. She was growing up in poverty. After years of struggling, the family moved to a larger city in search of a better life and Drita started working in various factories, providing an income while helping their parents with the younger siblings and housework.
Drita was only 15 when her uncle introduced a man, who was interested in getting engaged to her. Her family rushed through the necessary arrangements for the marriage and she left. Her new husband was from another country.
A few years later Drita’s family was informed that Drita had been kidnapped. She was 17 at the time. Many years later she miraculously managed to return to Albania with her two daughters, after escaping the horrors of sexual exploitation and involvement in drug dealing. Her extended family, or rather those who are currently in Albania, are still in a very difficult economic situation, and the only support for them comes from their relatives.
Sexual violence against children can take a multitude of forms, including but not limited to sexual abuse, harassment, rape, sexual exploitation, prostitution, or pornography.
It can also occur in the places where children should feel the safest: their homes, schools, and communities.
The UNICEF-led program “Transforming the National Response to Human Trafficking in and from Albania”, funded by the UK government since 2019, is one of the concrete examples of multilayer and structural responses to complex issues affecting children and women. The program is implemented in close collaboration with the Office of the National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator in Albania and many key stakeholders. The program is evidence-informed driving its strategic communication approaches to trigger a positive change of knowledge and attitudes around human trafficking, stigma, abuse, and exploitation. It helps the national justice and law enforcement groups to better and more efficiently prevent and support people at risk, but most importantly, the program directly helps the survivors of abuse and trafficking to access needed services and bounce back with reinforced self-worth and improved economic opportunities. A human-rights-centered approach to programming is a cornerstone of all interventions.
However, UNICEF alone, even with the best partners around, is unable to offer a truly sustainable solution to some of the root causes that drive children into the hands of wrongdoers and abusers. Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the vulnerability of those most unprotected resulting in an unprecedented rise in all forms of violence against children and women, finding the right stepping stones became even more urgent. Therefore, UNICEF suggests the following:
Investing in violence prevention. Prevention will save lives and resources. Outlining preventive programs will never work if they are not budgeted. Addressing violence requires resources along with everything else.
Listening to and involving children. The meaningful and participatory, and not tokenistic, inclusion of children in ending violence against them is necessary. Easier said than done, but it is critical. Social workers, teachers, police, health professionals, and all those who interact with children must be provided sufficient training to achieve this objective.
Leave no one behind. Perpetual struggle with insufficient resources is a challenge but the cuts must never happen on the backs of the most vulnerable and voiceless – including those living in extreme poverty, children with disabilities, those affected by crisis, conflict, or disaster, and others.
If only the three priorities above were a little bit more present in the current Albanian child protection system, Drita’s situation could have been spotted and addressed on a myriad of occasions, before becoming a tragedy. However, Drita has a second chance, she knows it and she is fighting back. She has been identified by the UNICEF-supported anti-trafficking program and together with her children is now receiving the necessary package of rehabilitation services.
Violence is fully preventable. Solutions are not unknown. Addressing it is a smart investment!
1Council of Europe https://www.coe.int/en/web/children/campaign-materials1
2Council of Europe https://rm.coe.int/greta-2018-26-alb-rep-en/168097fa81
3Pereznieto, Paola et al. “The costs and economic impact of violence against children” September 2014