Gender and health

Gender and nutrition

Gender and water, sanitation and hygiene(WASH)

Gender and education

Gender and child protection

Gender and emergencies

Gender and HIV/AIDS: Prevention of Mother-to-Child-Transmission (PMTCT) and paediatric treatment

Gender and HIV/AIDS: Prevention among young people


Gender and child protection

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-0176/Elder
Three girls stare at the burnt shell of their grandparents' home in Nairobi, Kenya. The home was attacked during the post-election violence.

Gender plays a significant role in how children are treated within families and communities. Reliable and up-to-date data on violations of children’s right to protection are notoriously difficult to obtain in the Eastern and Southern Africa region (ESAR) - like in many other regions - as many child maltreatment practices are shrouded in secrecy. However, available evidence  reveals that certain practices such as child marriage and sexual violence have a significant gender dimension, affecting girls more than boys, and impacting girls more severely.

Key Issues

Violence: The full extent of violence against children in ESA is not known. The abuse tends to happen behind closed doors and is therefore hidden from official monitoring.

Although sexual violence affects all children, girls are particularly vulnerable because of gender norms that encourage men to be aggressive and women to have little control over their bodies and safety. Sexual violence exposes girls to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections as well as early pregnancy with all the added physical and psychological issues attached to it. Girls also experience sexual violence and harassment in schools, which is a major impediment to achieving gender equality in education.

According to a 2007 study conducted by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF in Swaziland, approximately one in three girls and young women between 13 and 24 years of age had experienced some form of sexual violence and nearly one in four experienced physical violence as a child. Boyfriends and husbands were the most frequent perpetrators of sexual violence.

Results of surveys on the acceptance of ‘wife-beating’ indicate that domestic violence is socially sanctioned, not least by girls and women themselves. According to the evidence, 65 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 think that a husband is justified in beating his wife.

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C): The widespread practice remains a significant protection threat for girls in the region, especially in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea have the highest rates of FGM/C in the world. More than 70 percent of girls and women 15–49 years old have been cut in these countries. Though the prevalence of the practice is declining, changing attitudes is a slow process. More vigorous advocacy and behaviour change communication is needed to change communities’ attitudes and protect girls.

Early marriage is not only a violation of children’s rights but harmful to them on many levels. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) prohibits the marriage of any child under the age of 18 years. However, in the majority of countries in ESA, traditional or customary law continues to support early marriage. Throughout the region, more than one third of women aged 20–24 years (6.5 million) have been married or in union before the age of 18.

Rates of early marriage are particularly high in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. But also in other countries, such as Malawi and Mozambique, the rate is above 50 percent. Girls who marry early get caught up in a negative cycle that involves premature childbearing, high levels of maternal mortality and high rates of child malnutrition. Child marriage also leads to social isolation and to early drop-out from school.

Child marriage often involves a substantial age difference between the girl and her marriage partner, thus further disempowering girls and exposing them to the risks of sexually transmitted diseases.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2266/Holt
Community members attend a meeting to discuss FGM/C and other practices in Amibara District, Ethiopia.

A recent study of child marriage in Kenya and Zambia found that married girls have higher rates of HIV than sexually active unmarried girls.

Child labour: Around 36 percent of children aged 5–14 years are involved in child labour in ESAR – the highest proportion of all regions.

Children are most often employed in the informal and unregulated sectors of the economy. As a result they find themselves easy targets for abuse, intimidation and sexual exploitation. Those burdened by domestic servitude are overwhelmingly girls under the age of 16, especially in countries such as Tanzania and Kenya. This form of work, which often isolates girls in their employers’ households, carries a high risk of abuse and limits girls’ opportunities to go to school.

Commercial sexual exploitation, one of the most hazardous forms of child labour, is a particular threat to girls and some boys in a number of countries in the region, including Kenya, South Africa and Madagascar. According to a UNICEF-supported survey on sex tourism on the Kenyan coast, in 2006 between 2,000 and 3,000 girls worked year-round as commercial sex workers, and nearly half of them started as young as 12 or 13 years of age.

Child migration and trafficking: As a result of socio-economic and political crises in the region, including civil unrest and political violence, child migration, including unaccompanied children crossing borders, is on the increase in Eastern and Southern Africa.  Research on “Children on the move”, including recent work conducted by the Wits University Centre for Forced Migration in South Africa, notes that girls and boys who are crossing borders face different protection threats and risks. Girls are at greater risk of sexual exploitation and violence, while boys are more likely to be detained, often in facilities designed for adults.

Throughout the region, trafficking of children is a growing problem. There is only limited data available, which indicates that children constitute the majority of victims of trafficking. Girls and young women are most vulnerable given that trafficking typically involves sexual exploitation, and forced domestic labour.

UNICEF interventions

UNICEF advocates for and works with governments to ensure that the rights of girls and boys are protected and incorporated into policies and strategies. This includes Children’s Acts which articulate the importance of eliminating barriers to gender equality and traditional practices that discriminate or disempower girls or boys. Comprehensive Children’s Acts have been drafted and reviewed in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland. In 2009, Tanzania and Botswana followed in enacting their own Children’s Acts.

UNICEF’s Global Child Protection Strategy addresses gender inequality, including through promoting the priority of social change as well as the collection of sex disaggregated data to improve overall knowledge on gender-based discrimination and develop programmes to strengthen gender equality.

Child protection priorities promoted by UNICEF in ESA are designed to address gender inequality through a focus on:

  • Strengthening child protection systems, with an emphasis on legal reform, and on strengthening norms and standards that eliminate discrimination based on gender;
  • Prevention of and response to violence against children, including sexual violence;
  • Elimination of harmful traditional practices such as early marriage and FGM/C.





More on the report

Dynamics of social change: Towards the abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in five African countries [PDF]

For more information, please visit the official website for UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.


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