When 11-year-old Kelvin* recounts his earliest memories of home, it’s a mix tape of cane lashes and emotional isolation. Living with his father and stepmother in a small local community in Nigeria meant he often felt like the scapegoat for all of the family misfortunes. He often shivered in loneliness at night in a room outside the main building where the family slept. His body became familiar with sticks, his heart with aching loneliness and his eyes with sadness.
“They were always accusing me of things I did not do. They would insult me, tie me up and beat me,” says Kelvin.
Across the world, Kelvin’s story is not unique. Globally, about half of the world’s children, around 1 billion children and adolescents aged 2 to 17 years, experience physical, emotional or sexual violence every year. Three-quarters of young children aged 2 to 4 years, experience violent discipline on a regular basis. Children with developmental delays or disabilities are at particular risk of parental abuse and neglect.
Child trauma does not just occur in chaotic or violent homes. Sometimes it is unintentional and not meant with cruelty. Children are biologically programmed to seek a deep connection with a parent. Yet many parents cannot respond to that need. We rarely think of our own parents as children, but if they felt unloved or unsafe as children themselves, they are at greater risk of automatically replicating that behaviour with their own children.
For children danger is not just the presence of violence, it’s also the absence of love and care.
For children danger is not just the presence of violence, it’s also the absence of love and care. When children feel unsafe or unloved it over-activates their stress response system and their evolving bodies and brains are unable to deal with it. This derails their mental and physical development with catastrophic impacts that can last through the life course.
Abuse and neglect are the main preventable cause of mental illness, addiction and propensity to violence. They significantly contribute to ill-health and poor learning outcomes. They are one of our most costly and least talked about social problems. Yet they are preventable. A strong parental attachment is the single most important protective factor in the lives of children.
In one way or another, every society pays a heavy price for child maltreatment that could be prevented for a fraction of the cost.
A strong parental attachment is the single most important protective factor in the lives of children.
Universal access to parenting programmes that prevent abuse and neglect
Evidence shows that parenting programmes are the most impactful way of preventing abuse and neglect. A minimum package of evidence based and low-cost parenting interventions, or ‘parenting vaccines’, can be delivered through home visits in early childhood with boosters through childhood and adolescence.
Trained professionals help parents learn skills, strategies and tools of care for their children and manage their own mental health. This includes connecting with children through nurturing and playful interactions and ensuring discipline is not harmful. Parenting interventions are the most effective way to break intergenerational patterns of abuse and neglect. Where possible, parenting interventions also need to be supported by family-friendly policies that ensure the care, time and resources for parents to provide quality childcare.
Universal provision is affordable in most contexts, yields huge returns on investment and avoids the stigma of targeted programmes. These interventions are scalable and cost-effective with countries, such as South Africa, already expanding low cost parenting programmes. Often parenting programmes are embedded within existing health or community systems, such as nursing home visits.
We have only learnt recently the scale and costs of child maltreatment, as well as the preventability. Now we have this knowledge at out fingertips we have a moral and human rights imperative to act.
[W]e have a moral and human rights imperative to act.
Today UNICEF will join WHO and the UN Special Representative on Violence Against Children to call on all UN Member States to scale up a minimum package of parenting programmes which are adaptable to the local context. We will be joined by the Governments of Japan and Jamaica and Nadine Burke Harris, one of the world’s most prominent advocate on child protection.
The message is clear. Child maltreatment is neither inevitable or unpreventable. Together we are building a coalition to ensure that every child is safe in a world without abuse and neglect.
*The name of the child in this story has been changed to protect him. Other details about the child or his situation remain the same.
About the authors:
Oluwatosin Akingbulu, Advocacy and Communication Specialist (Early Childhood Development), UNICEF Division of Global Communications & Advocacy
Benjamin Perks, Head of Campaigns & Advocacy /Senior Advisor, UNICEF Division of Global Communications & Advocacy