Every child has the right to live free from violence, exploitation and abuse.
Children experience insidious forms of violence, exploitation and abuse. It happens in every country, and in the places children should be most protected – their homes, schools and online. Violence against children can be physical, emotional or sexual. And in many cases, children suffer at the hands of the people they trust.
Children in humanitarian settings are especially vulnerable. During armed conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies, children may be forced to flee their homes, some torn from their families and exposed to exploitation and abuse along the way. They risk injury and death. They may be recruited by armed forces. Especially for girls and women, the threat of gender-based violence soars.
Harmful cultural practices pose another grave risk in various parts of the world. Hundreds of millions of girls have been subjected to child marriage and female genital mutilation – even though both are internationally recognized human rights violations.
No matter the circumstance, every child has the right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse. Child protection systems connect children to vital social services and fair justice systems – starting at birth. They provide care to the most vulnerable, including children uprooted by conflict, poverty and disaster; victims of child labour or trafficking; and those who live with disabilities or in alternative care. Above all, protecting children means protecting their physical, mental and psychosocial needs to safeguard their futures.
Topics in child protection
Economic hardship exacts a toll on millions of families worldwide – and in some places, it comes at the price of a child’s physical safety. Nearly 1 in 10 children across the globe are subjected to child labour, almost half of whom are in hazardous forms of work.
Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and threatens their well-being. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services.
Despite being internationally recognized as a human rights violation, female genital mutilation (FGM) has been performed on at least 200 million girls and women across the globe. Numerous factors contribute to the prevalence of the practice. Yet in every society in which it occurs, FGM is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality. FGM can lead to serious health complications and even death.
Gender-based violence is the most pervasive yet least visible human rights violation in the world. It includes physical, sexual, mental or economic harm inflicted on a person because of socially ascribed power imbalances between males and females. In emergency settings, the risk of gender-based violence soars.
Thousands of children are recruited and used in armed conflicts across the world. Often referred to as “child soldiers,” these boys and girls suffer extensive forms of exploitation and abuse that are not fully captured by that term. Warring parties use children not only as fighters, but as scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers and more.
Millions of children are on the move. Some are driven from their homes by conflict, poverty or climate change. Others leave in the hope of finding a better life. Far too many encounter danger, detention, deprivation and discrimination on their journeys, at destination or upon return.
Explosive weapons kill and injure thousands of civilians each year, during and after armed conflict. Children account for roughly half of the casualties from explosive ordnance. Child survivors endure staggering physical injury and psychological trauma. But explosive weapons also inflict severe harm on children indirectly: They destroy vital infrastructure – like water pipelines, sanitation facilities, hospitals and schools – cutting children off from essential services.
Violent conflicts, natural disasters and other crises force thousands of girls and boys from their parents and caregivers each year. Some children are separated from their families during the chaos of a humanitarian emergency. Others may be pulled away by parties involved in a violent conflict. Those who receive early support in tracing their relatives are more likely to be reunified.
Every child has the right to grow up in a supportive family environment. But worldwide, an estimated 2.7 million children live in residential care – and the actual figure is likely much higher. Growing up in an institution puts children at risk of physical, emotional and social harm.
Children exposed to conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises can suffer severe psychological and social consequences. Mental health and psychosocial support for children affected by emergencies is essential.
In areas affected by conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies, people trust aid workers to assist and protect them. The vast majority do so with professionalism and integrity. But some aid workers abuse their position of power through the sexual exploitation and abuse of those who depend on them, including children.
Every child has the right to a legal identity, but a quarter of children born today do not “officially” exist. These children are deprived of birth certificates – their first legal proof of identity – simply because their parents cannot afford it, cannot reach it, or face some other barrier to learning about and accessing registration services.
Across the world, millions of children interact with justice systems every year. They could be victims or witnesses to a crime. They could be alleged, accused or recognized as having broken the law. They could be in need of care or safety, or seeking to protect their rights. But justice systems do not always fulfil the promise of fairness. And in some places, they fail to uphold children's most basic rights.
Social service workers are often the first line of response for children in harm's way. Working closely with children and families, they identify and manage risks that children may be exposed to at home and elsewhere, especially those related to violence, abuse, exploitation, neglect, discrimination and poverty.
What we do
UNICEF works in more than 150 countries to protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse. We partner with governments, businesses, civil-society organizations and communities to prevent all forms of violence against children, and to support survivors, including with mental health and psychosocial services. Our efforts strengthen child protection systems to help children access vital social services, from birth through adolescence.
During a humanitarian crisis, we provide leadership and coordination for all actors involved in the response. Our programming focuses on protecting children from explosive weapons and remnants of war; reunifying separated children with their families; releasing and reintegrating children associated with armed groups; preventing and addressing gender-based violence; and safeguarding children from sexual exploitation and abuse. We also work with United Nations partners to monitor and report grave violations of children’s rights in armed conflict.
Alongside communities, we accelerate the elimination of harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
We also support governments with policy, legislation and regulatory frameworks that give more children access to vital social services and justice.
Throughout all we do, we listen to young people to ensure their needs drive our programming and advocacy. Our initiatives support parents and caregivers, and build alliances at the local and global levels to leverage knowledge, raise awareness and encourage action.
The Alliance is a global, interagency group that works across humanitarian sectors to set standards and provide technical support for protecting children.
The girls at greatest risk of early marriage are often those hardest to reach. In 2016, UNICEF and UNFPA launched a global programme to tackle child marriage in 12 of the most high-prevalence and high-burden countries.
Female genital mutilation persists for various reasons, including cultural and economic factors that make it difficult for communities to abandon the practice. But it cannot forever withstand the voices of survivors mobilizing to change beliefs. UNICEF and UNFPA work to tackle FGM through interventions in 17 countries.