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"Protecting children from violence; from commitments to action"

Statement by
Shahnaz Kianian-Firouzgar, Deputy Regional Director
UNICEF Regional Office for the Central and Eastern Europe
and the Commonwealth of Independent States

Xth ISPCAN European Regional Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect

New developments in Science and Practice: Influences on Child Protection

September 11 - 14, 2005
Berlin, Germany

I am delighted to be here today to urge each and every one of you to Act Now on Violence against Children. I would also like to thank the INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR PREVENTION OF CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT (ISPCAN) and the GERMAN SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT (GESPCAN) for organizing this important conference. We in UNICEF are proud of our partnership with ISPCAN and pleased to be co-sponsoring this gathering of distinguished professionals who share our concerns and commitments for children.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can not wait another year, or week, or even one more day, before we take action to stop violence against children. No culture, religion or society condones this scourge.  But in the next 24 hours, four children in the European region will die as a result of violence in their own homes. And for every child who dies, thousands more live on with the constant threat of violence. Children face violence each day beyond their homes: in their communities, in the classroom and in residential institutions. Violence against children is hidden and corrosive, destroying lives and potential and breeding societies that accept the unacceptable – that children can be beaten, exploited and humiliated.

It is possible that, in our lifetime, violence against children in all its forms will come to be seen as completely unacceptable and it is true that a shift in attitudes and values is already underway.
Europe and Central Asia is the region with the strongest human rights frameworks in place. It has structures, knowledge and major resources at its disposal. And in some countries, there is clear evidence that attitudes towards violence against children have shifted in a generation.

At the same time, the gap between theory and practice in most countries is still too wide. Children in Europe are just as vulnerable to violence as children in any other region.  While there are examples of good practice in a number of countries, the European response is fragmented, small scale, and rarely documented or shared.

Violence undermines child development and is a gross violation of child rights, wherever it occurs: in their homes and in their schools, or in institutions that are meant to care for them. This violence must stop.

That means not only investigating, prosecuting and punishing perpetrators, but also developing broad initiatives to change the hearts and minds of society, and address the underlying issues that can trigger violence.

The problem

Recent assessments of trends of violence in Europe show that children suffer violence of all kinds, and that significant numbers are dying as a result . Extreme forms of violence linked to pornography and trafficking are on the rise, as is violence in the media . It is becoming clear that violence has less to do with a country’s wealth, and more to do with attitudes to children and their political importance.

A 2003 UNICEF Report on child deaths through maltreatment in the 30 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted among the key findings, that:

Each year, about 3.500 children under the age of 15 die as a result of physical abuse and neglect in industrialized countries, including two every week in Germany and the UK and three a week in France .
Every day, four children under the age of 15 die from physical violence in the European region. Thousands more are injured, physically and emotionally.
The younger the child, the greater the risk of being killed – about three times greater for children under one than for those aged 1 to 4. But even for this age group, the risk is twice as high as for those aged 5 to 14.
 While it is relatively easy to find solid data on the extreme forms of violence that result in a child’s death, there is a chronic lack of data on other forms of violence. Some states, for example, justify an arbitrary level of physical violence in the home as a means of “disciplining” children. Only 16 countries of the 52 in Europe and Central Asia prohibit corporal punishment in the home. As a result, violence against children in the home remains hidden.

Official figures reflect legal definitions of “abuse” rather than the true extent of violence.  A 2001 UNICEF survey of children in 35 countries in Europe and Central Asia found that 59% had experienced violent behaviour in their own families. And a 2002 analysis of dozens of studies on corporal punishment confirmed one clear fact – it simply does not work. Its impact is entirely negative . Research has also revealed positive effects on children’s lives in countries where corporal punishment has been prohibited.

Given the scale of the problem, the fact that corporal punishment is a useless disciplinary measure, and the benefits to children in countries that have banned it, I do not understand why so many States are still wavering on this issue.

One form of violence breeds another. Research into child sexual abuse in European families, for example, finds links between child sexual abuse and other forms of physical and emotional abuse.  The research estimates that up to 20% of all children will be sexually assaulted during their childhood. Most are girls, and many are already extremely vulnerable, such as children with disabilities.

Emotional abuse must be the most common form of child maltreatment. But there is little or no data on abuse that leaves no evidence or scars other than the bruises imprinted on a child’s heart and mind. 

Violence against children is like an iceberg, with all but its tip buried in the depths of adult ignorance, self-deception and apathy. The tip represents the tiny proportion of violence that comes to official notice. Under the surface, hidden from view, there is a shocking mass of unreported, silent misery.  Only the recognition of violence against children as a problem for an entire society will bring about the necessary systematic change.   

Standards and commitments

Let me talk a little more about the standards and commitments that are already in place. In a global perspective, the European region is light years ahead in the legal prohibition of violence against children. Law reform is speeding along, thanks largely to strong regional human rights frameworks promoted by the Council of Europe and a vibrant civil society.

Every State has accepted its legal obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 19 of the Convention obliges States to protect every child “from all forms of physical or mental violence” while in care of parents or others”.  The 46 member states of the Council of Europe who have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter are bound by their complementary obligations, enforceable through the Council’s human rights mechanisms.

But what do these treaties actually mean? They mean that States must not perpetrate violence against children. And States must do all they can to deter and prevent violence and protect children from violence wherever it occurs.

This region has many of the institutional structures needed to tackle the underlying causes of violence against children. Almost all countries have effective governance structures, universal school and health systems and strong media. These are countries with major resources at their disposal. In this sense, the region should be able to go further and move faster than many others and play a leadership role in combating violence.

Clear commitments to children have been made at intergovernmental meetings, most notably here in Berlin in 2001 at the First Intergovernmental Conference on Children in Europe and Central Asia. All governments pledged to, and I quote: “take all necessary measures in order to end all forms of violence against children, such as sexual abuse and exploitation and corporal punishment; combat violence in schools; protect children from violence and pornography in the media and on internet; end trafficking of children without criminalizing child victims and ensure comprehensive rehabilitation and social integration of affected children…..”

States reaffirmed such commitment when they adopted A World Fit for Children, the Outcome Document of the General Assembly Special Session in 2002, as well as the Sarajevo Commitment of the Second Intergovernmental Conference on Making Europe and Central Asia Fit for Children in May 2004.

Despite all of these promises, the Committee on the Rights of the Child continues to find that, in every country, children are not fully protected from violence. This has motivated the Committee to ask the UN Secretary-General to conduct a Global Study on Violence against Children, a recommendation backed by the Commission on Human Rights.

In late 2003, the UN Secretary General appointed Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro as an Independent Expert to lead the Global Study and present its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly in 2006. There will also be a more detailed report, including in-depth information on the situation and on best practices, as well as a child-friendly version for children and young people.

The Study is a landmark moment in efforts to end the violence. Its aims are threefold:

To give international visibility to the whole issue of violence against children; Raising understanding of its causes and its impact on children and societies;
To assess existing policies and mechanisms and boost their ability to prevent and address the violence;
And to develop an international action plan to end the abuse.

Information for the Study is being gathered in a number of ways. In 2004, the Study Secretariat sent all governments a detailed questionnaire and, to date, 106 countries, including 36 from Europe and Central Asia have responded. The outcomes of nine regional consultations are also feeding into the study. These include the Regional Consultation for Europe and Central Asia, held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in July this year.

Some 300 participants from 46 countries took part in the Consultation, organised by the Council of Europe in partnership with UNICEF, WHO, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the NGO Advisory Panel. Hosted by the Government of Slovenia, the Consultation brought together, for the first time, senior government officials, international organizations, experts, academics and practitioners, NGOs and children to take stock of how violence affects children in an area stretching from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Sea of Japan.

While the Consultation aimed to provide information for the Global Study, it also aimed to shine a spotlight on violence against children in this region, and galvanise action under the slogan: ACT NOW!

Indeed, the Ljubljana Final Conclusions call for immediate, effective and region-wide action .

The Consultation was notable for the wealth of experience shared between Western and Eastern Europe. Despite the immense diversity of this region, it soon became clear that there was much common ground.

The role of the state, for example, was a recurring theme. Each state has clear accountabilities under the Convention on the Rights of the Child that apply to every child in every environment. The state has direct obligation to protect children from violence in all state institutions, including schools and residential facilities.  And the state is the only actor that can really break the silence that surrounds hidden violence.

The Consultation called for a coherent ‘strategy’ in each country to combat violence against children. These must be based on a careful assessment of the problems and opportunities, the gaps in services and data, and the potential for alliances with professionals, parents and children themselves. Success, it was agreed, depended not on financial resources, but on courage and conviction to challenge conventional wisdom and mindsets. That requires clear vision, clear benchmarks, mass mobilization, and the genuine participation of children and young people.

The strategies need to reflect the strong symbolic power of laws that prohibit violence. When legislators take a stand on an issue, that issue is taken seriously. It sends a clear and powerful message to each family – violence is not acceptable.

They need to build up the capacities of parents, professionals and public authorities and reinforce their accountabilities. Parents and teachers, in particular, need help to lead the way in non-violent relationships between adults and children.

The strategies need to create a continuum of interlinked ‘child sensitive’ services that ensure a high standard of response to any child at risk of violence. They should establish effective, accessible and confidential channels through which children can report acts of violence – channels that can really take action on their behalf.

And finally, they should recognize children as strategic partners, who offer unique insights, understanding and creativity.
The Consultation helped to forge an alliance of organisations, individuals and children’s groups – all committed to action at national and regional level. Building on this momentum is now an absolute priority.

So, where do we go from here?

We need a recognition of this problem in legislation and in society. Legal standards are essential, but are not, on their own, enough to stop violence against children. We need to be bold, for example, in exposing the myth that home is the safest place for a child. No place should be considered sacred when it comes to the safety of children. We need to scrutinize our old assumptions and overhaul our protection mechanisms.

We need a strategic approach. This means, long term, sustainable approaches that build capacity, strengthen accountability, enhance monitoring, raise public awareness and involve children. Legal frameworks must be translated into action on the ground. Countries such as Sweden have shown how, over the span of one generation, it is possible to change parental attitudes by combining legal action with public dialogue. The 16 countries in our region that have prohibited physical violence against children in the home are on a similar course. Other countries need to follow their lead.

We need explicit prohibition of all forms of violence, including corporal punishment. Violence in the family is perhaps a great challenge. But addressing it “head on” will bring an immense strategic significance: if violence is forbidden in the family, it is, in effect, forbidden everywhere.

Prohibiting corporal punishment is the first decisive step. Any state, regardless of its wealth or poverty, has the power and capacity to enact such a measure. Banning corporal punishment sends a powerful message to the whole society – that the physical integrity of children must be respected. 

We need to recognize the critical role of those who work with children. The State is obliged to ensure that its own institutions do not perpetuate violence. And the State is also obliged to promote and up-hold non-violent standards for all private service providers. We need transparency and open door policies for every institution where children spend their time. And we need to strengthen the capacities, skills and accountability of all professionals who have direct contact with children, including care providers, teachers, health and legal professionals, as well as social workers. That means effective performance monitoring systems and measures to ensure accountability to the clients and the community.

We need a ‘new paradigm’ for children – a paradigm that fosters relations based on trust and on a profound respect for children. We need parental education that creates new communication between children and adults and promotes non-violent child rearing. Paradigm shifts, once achieved, appear so obvious that any other course becomes almost unthinkable. 

We need the active participation of children. This is not mere window-dressing, but an essential part of any effective strategy to improve child protection. After all, who is better informed than they? Whose opinion can be more valid? Whose experience more relevant? They can tell us what it means to experience violence, where it hurts, and how to shape our strategies for the greatest impact. For children to become strategic partners, it is not enough to give them the means to make their voices heard – we adults must listen, and we must act on what we hear.

And finally, yes we need more research. But do we need to wait for it before we act? Absolutely not. The data may be patchy, but that is no bar to action. We know enough to draw up our strategies. However, we do need much more analysis and much more sharing of the results. We need to share examples of what works. And we need to be open about what does not. A thoughtful research agenda on this issue, pursued by research “champions”, would support effective advocacy, based on evidence.

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow professionals, in closing, let me remind you that the Convention on the Rights of the Child demands the physical integrity, safety and dignity of each and every child. This means that every child has the right to grow up without violence. This Conference will bring about better understanding of ways that we, the professionals, can make important contribution to building a protective environment around all children. An environment in which violence against children is consigned to the history books: something inconceivable in today’s world.

Thank you.





Related links

Resource package:
UN Consultation on Violence Against Children in Europe and Central Asia

Web site:
The International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect

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