The failure to tackle violence against children during COVID-19 and the recovery

An op-ed by Marcoluigi Corsi, UNICEF Regional Director a.i. for East Asia and the Pacific

Marcoluigi Corsi
An 8-year-old girl clutching a favourite stuffed toy sits on the arm of a bench in front of her home at a shelter in the Philippines
03 November 2021

Tackling violence against children is critical in every country’s response to and recovery from COVID-19 in East Asia and the Pacific. Efforts to regain lost ground in education, early childhood development and mental health will be undermined if the protection of children from violence is neglected. The consequences of this failure will be felt for generations to come.

Prior to COVID-19, an estimated 1 billion children globally experienced some form of violence each year, despite the universal right of every child to live free from violence. Beyond its immediate impact, we know that children will continue to suffer consequences throughout their life. They are at increased risk of experiencing health and mental health issues, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviour. Adults who suffered violence as children are more likely to perpetrate or experience violence later in life.

Violence against children places a long-term burden on health and social services. It undermines investment and progress in health, early childhood development, nutrition, and education. Violence against children constrains economic development and costs the region US$209 billion every year, 2 per cent of the region’s GDP.

With over one quarter of the world’s children living in this region, failure to tackle violence against children here will impact whether the world achieves the Sustainable Development Goal on ending violence against children. 

When COVID-19 hit this region early in the pandemic, it impacted every country. Containment measures to control the pandemic led to school closures and kept children at home. For many children, home was not safe, and they faced increased risks of violence from family members and online. One-third of households had a child or caregiver reporting violence in the home, and children reported that violence was double the rate when schools were closed, compared to when they were attending in person, a survey by Save the Children indicates.

With most countries in the region failing to designate social welfare services as essential, vital protection services were disrupted preventing children from reaching out for help – in East Asia and Pacific, 491 million children live in countries that reported disruption to services.

The end of control measures and recovery from the pandemic does not guarantee safety for children; far from it. The socio-economic fall out will continue to impact already vulnerable families and exacerbate risks of violence, abuse, harmful practices and exploitation.  As budgets shrink, cuts in public and donor financing of welfare and protection services are inevitable without urgent action. These cuts will compound the impact of the pandemic and threaten a roll back of the gains made in reducing prevalence of violence in the region.  

Rather than being viewed as a secondary issue to education, health and early childhood development, tackling violence against children must be integral to the COVID-19 recovery agenda if investment in those areas is to be effective:

  • Failing to integrate violence prevention and mental well-being into the back to school agenda will undermine efforts to help children make up learning. As schools open and governments invest heavily in this area, efforts to ensure school environments are conducive to learning is critical. Evidence shows that violence in schools not only contributes to children dropping out, but also negatively impacts learning outcomes.
  • There is a growing recognition of the severe impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and well-being of populations. Risk of poor mental health outcomes are particularly acute for the most vulnerable, including those facing violence, neglect and abuse – mental health and well-being of under-18s cannot be effectively addressed without addressing violence. It is imperative that we secure investment in mental health services and tackle the stigma that prevents children and young people reaching out for help.
  • Countries have recognised the need to invest in social protection to support families cope with the economic impact of COVID-19. However, the pandemic impacted the capacity of many parents and caregivers to nurture and safeguard their children and in turn increased the risk of neglect, abuse and violence. The investment in social protection must go hand in hand with positive parenting programmes that promote responsive, nurturing caregiving and violence free households, including through supporting caregiver well-being and mental health.   

These strategies must be underpinned by a robust social service, justice and health workforce and system with the capacity and resources to protect children from violence.

We have the tools to ensure children can grow up free from violence.  The Seven INSPIRE Strategies to end violence against children, were developed with 10 international partners, including UNICEF and the World Health Organization. From ensuring the enforcement of child focused laws, to promoting positive parent-child relationships and providing socio-economic assistance, INSPIRE strategies are based on evidence of what works. Implementation relies on high level leadership, and commitment and action from all sectors.

We must also listen to and amplify the voices of children and young people, to shape action. 

Violence against children is preventable, not inevitable. Tackling violence against children must be an integral part of the COVID-19 recovery. Failure to do so will not only undermine recovery efforts for children but will also have long lasting consequences for societies.

Every child has the right to a childhood free from violence. COVID-19 must not change this.

For further information, please contact: Shima Islam, UNICEF Regional Communication Specialist,