Child Protection


Birth registration

Violence against children


Violence against children

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2263/Holt
A former excisor who performed female genital mutilation on girls holds the tool she used at a community meeting, Ethiopia.

No violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable. Yet as the landmark United Nations Secretary-General's Study on Violence against Children (2006) confirms, that such violence exists in every country of the world, cutting across culture, class, education, income and ethnic origin. 

In Eastern and Southern Africa, researches carried out by UNICEF and partners reveal a picture of widespread violence against girls and boys. In Swaziland, for example, a 2007 study [PDF] showed that nearly 1 in 4 women experienced physical violence as children, 1 in 3 experienced sexual violence, and 3 in 10 were emotionally abused. A similar study in Tanzania found that nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 7 men experienced sexual violence as children.

Data generated by these initiatives indicate that while some violence is unexpected and isolated, the majority of violent acts experienced by children is small, yet repeated, and is often perpetrated by people who are part of their lives: parents, teachers, schoolmates, employers, boyfriends or girlfriends. 

Much violence against children is un-reported and un-recorded. They remain hidden for many reasons. One is fear: many children are afraid to report incidents of violence against them. Social acceptance of violence is another factor. Violence is also invisible because there are no safe or trusted ways for children or adults to report it. 

No matter its cultural, economic or social background, every society, can and must stop violence against children. This does not mean sanctioning perpetrators only, but requires transformation of the “mindset” of societies and the underlying economic and social conditions associated with violence.

UNICEF in action

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-0214/Cranston
A boy stands in front of the remains of his community church in Eldoret, Kenya. The church was burned during the post-election violence, with many women and children inside.

In response to the UN Secretary-General's Study on Violence against Children, UNICEF in ESA was the first to partner with governments to measure the magnitude, context and nature of violence against children. With support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, national population-based surveys were conducted in several countries to generate important evidence on violence against children. 

To date, studies have been conducted in Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The findings confirm an endemic pattern of violence against children — girls and boys, alike. Homes and schools, two spaces where children spend the majority of their time, are proven to be unsafe. These are the sites where multiple types of violence occur, including emotional, physical and sexual. 

The findings also indicate very high levels of physical violence – over 70 per cent of boys and girls reported severe beatings, with teachers and parents as primary perpetrators across all countries. Reporting of incidents of violence, however, is poor – 50 per cent for girls and even fewer for boys. Of these who did report, less than half ever received services. 

Prevalence of sexual violence prior to age 18 reported by females and males aged 18-24 in countries completed the UNICEF-CDC violence against children study.

Given the region’s high HIV prevalence, the findings of these studies reveal yet another worrying pattern: for those who experienced sexual violence as children, they are more disposed towards risky sexual behaviors. Data from Swaziland, Tanzania and Kenya all confirm that both males and females are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, and less likely to use protection during sexual intercourse.

In addition to population-based surveys in the five countries, South Africa and Uganda have produced substantial national data through desk reviews to help the governments, UNICEF and other partners better understand violence against children. 

Violence against children is multi-dimensional and calls for a multifaceted response. An increasingly popular strategy for addressing violence is through the establishment of ”one-stop centers” (OSCs), which provide integrated, multi-disciplinary services in a single physical location, including health care, psychosocial support, and police and justice sector responses. A comparative case study in Kenya and Zambia shows that the OSC model appears to be the most effective in providing medical and legal support to victims.

Despite the advances made in data and evidence, the drivers of violence against children, its societal and economic determinants, have yet to be understood to their fullest extent. Unveiling them will contribute positively to prevention and service delivery efforts, and thus remains an important area for UNICEF’s child protection work in ESA.

Results for children

Governments in the region are paying increasing attention to providing stronger legal frameworks and other mechanisms to protect children from violence: 

  • Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Swaziland, Madagascar, South Africa and Zimbabwe passed laws to address sexual offenses against children and women, including strengthening law enforcement and prosecution of offenders.  

  • Several countries, including Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Malawi, set up specialized police units to ensure a child- and gender-sensitive response to sexual violence as part of a comprehensive response.

  • Mozambique and Uganda supported the implementation of the National Communication Strategies for the Prevention of Violence involving all sectors including the faith-based communities. 

  • In Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya and Uganda, UNICEF supports child helplines, where children can report cases of abuse, and seek referrals for counseling and psychological support. In Kenya, children who do not have access to a telephone can attend drop-in centres where counseling services are provided. 

  • Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Africa, Mozambique developed gender-based violence policies with significant sections or chapters that address the explicit needs of children (versus adults) in health care and justice settings. 

  • Corporal punishment is prohibited by law in penal institutions in seven ESA countries - Mozambique, Namibia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia. However, the effectiveness of the laws is questionable since there are few mechanisms to monitor or protect children’s rights.



 Email this article

unite for children