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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Sexual violence against children

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1810/Shehzad Noorani
Layla, 14, adjusts a mosquito net over her bed, in a room at the bar in Tarime District, Mara Region. Many bars in the area function as brothels.

Sexual violence against children is a gross violation of children’s rights. Yet it is a global reality across all countries and social groups. It can take the form of sexual abuse, harassment, rape or sexual exploitation in prostitution or pornography. It can happen in homes, institutions, schools, workplaces, in travel and tourism facilities, within communities - both in development and emergency contexts (see gender based violence in emergency situations) as well as in non-emergency contexts in developed countries. Increasingly, the internet and mobile phones also put children at risk of sexual violence as some adults look to the internet to pursue sexual relationships with children. There is also an increase in the number and circulation of images of child abuse. Children themselves also send each other sexualized messages or images on their mobile phones, so called ‘sexting’, which puts them at risk for other abuse.

The 2014 UNICEF study, Hidden in Plain Sight, estimates that around 120 million girls under the age of 20 (about 1 in 10) have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point of their lives. Boys also report experiences of sexual violence, but they do so to a lesser extent than girls. While more recent global estimates on sexual violence among boys are unavailable due to the lack of comparable data in most countries, girls typically report lifetime rates three times higher than boys in High Income Countries. Millions of more children are likely exploited in prostitution or pornography each year around the world, most of the times lured or forced into these situations through false promises and limited knowledge about the risks. Yet the true magnitude of sexual violence is hidden because of its sensitive and illegal nature. Most children and families do not report cases of abuse and exploitation because of stigma, fear, and lack of trust in the authorities. Social tolerance and lack of awareness also contribute to under-reporting.

Evidence shows that sexual violence can have serious short- and long-term physical, psychological and social consequences not only for girls or boys, but also for their families and communities. This includes increased risks for illness, unwanted pregnancy, psychological distress, stigma, discrimination and difficulties at school.

As part of UNICEF’s commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Rio de Janeiro Declaration and Call for Action to Prevent and Stop Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, UNICEF works to prevent and respond to sexual violence by engaging different government sectors - justice, social welfare, education and health - as well as legislators, civil society, community leaders, religious groups, the private sector, media, families and children themselves. UNICEF supports governments in strengthening child protection systems at national and local levels– including laws, policies, regulations and the provision of comprehensive services to child victims. UNICEF also works with communities and the general public to raise awareness about the problem and address attitudes, norms and practices that are harmful to children.

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