Protection of children from violence, abuse and exploitation

Child Protection


Fact sheet on Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse


Protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse is an integral component of protecting their rights to survival, growth and development. The approach of UNICEF is to create a protective environment, where girls and boys are free from violence, exploitation, and unnecessary separation from family; and where laws, services, behaviours and practices minimize children’s vulnerability, address known risk factors, and strengthen children’s own resilience.  UNICEF’s Child Protection Strategy, which was approved in 2008, lays out the strategic actions needed to build this protective environment.  The Strategy is centred around   a) strengthening child protection systems, including the set of laws, policies, regulations and services needed across all social sectors — especially social welfare, education, health, security and justice — to support prevention and response to protection related risks; b) Promoting social change that is consistent with human rights principles; and c) Strengthening child protection in emergencies.  Evidence building and convening and catalyzing a wide range or partners are priority cross-cutting areas.

Child Protection key data:

Birth Registration

  • Birth registration provides an official record of a child’s existence and nationality, and is considered a fundamental human right under Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
  • Around 51 million children born in 2007 have not had their births registered. Nearly half of these children live in South Asia.
  • One in four developing countries with available data has birth registration rates of less than 50 per cent.
  • Nearly two out of three children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia were not registered in 2007.
  • At the country level, however, data indicate that birth registration has increased in several countries including the Gambia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam.
  • Children under five who have been denied the right to identity tend to be poor and many children without a birth certificate live in rural areas. However, in some regions and countries, there are still intra-country disparities between urban and rural areas and between rich and poor.
  • Most countries show that birth registration is highest among the richest 20 per cent of the population, confirming that poverty is associated with low levels of birth registration.
  • Children who are not registered often have limited access to the protection and services to which they have a right, such as health care and education.
  • Cost and distance to the registration centre are the reasons most frequently cited by parents for not registering their children.
    Violence against children
  • It is impossible to measure the true magnitude of violence against children worldwide. There is a lack of data on the exact number of child victims because so much happens in secret and is not reported. However, between 500 million and 1.5 billion children are estimated to experience violence annually.  In each year as many as 275 million children worldwide are estimated to witness domestic violence.
  • In the Global School Based Student Health Survey, between 20% and 65% of school-aged children reported being verbally or physically bullied in school in the previous 30 days.
  • Although some violence is unexpected and isolated, most violence against children is carried out by people children know and should be able to trust and look to for protection and support, such as parents, step-parents or parents’ partners, extended family members, caregivers, boyfriends, girlfriends, schoolmates, teachers, religious leaders and employers.
  • While the family should be the natural environment for protection of children, the home can also be a place where children experience violence in the form of discipline. Data from 37 countries shows that 86 per cent of children 2–14 years old experience physical punishment and/or psychological aggression. Two out of three children are subject to physical punishment.
  • Certain groups of children are particularly vulnerable to violence, including children with disabilities, children belonging to minority groups, children living on the streets, adolescents in conflict with the law, and refugee, displaced and migrating children. Generally, boys tend to be at greater risk of physical violence and girls face greater risk of neglect and sexual violence and exploitation.

Child Labour

  • It has been estimated that 158 million children, aged 5-14, are engaged in labour, as of 2006.
  • More than one third of children in sub-Saharan Africa work.
  • The International labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than two thirds of all child labour is in the agricultural sector. It has found that children in rural areas – girls in particular – begin agricultural labour as young as 5-7 years old.
  • However, boys are more likely to be engaged in child labour than girls because they are more likely to be engaged in economic activity. Those engaged in household chores are overwhelmingly girls.
  • Understanding Children’s Work, an interagency project of the ILO, the World Bank and UNICEF, has reviewed the data from several countries for which comparable data exist in child labour. It observed a reduction in children’s engagement in economic activity in most countries, including large ones such as Brazil, India and Mexico. But in several countries, the trend is stable or child labour has even increased.

Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting

  • UNICEF estimates that 70 million girls and women aged 15–49 in 28 countries in Africa, plus Yemen have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).The prevalence of FGM/C has declined slowly but steadily during the past decades. Older girls and younger women are less likely to have experienced any form of FGM/C than older women.
  • Some 60 per cent of girls and women who have been cut live in sub-Saharan Africa, while 40 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • There are 29 countries in which the prevalence of FGM/C is 1 per cent or more, according to data from nationally representative household surveys; of those countries only Yemen is outside the African continent.
  • A 2006 WHO Study Group on Female Genital Mutilation and Obstetric Outcome provides clear evidence that complications in deliveries are significantly more likely among women with FGM/C. It also found that FGM/C is harmful to babies and leads to an extra one to two perinatal deaths per 100 deliveries.
  • FGM/C is generally carried out on girls between the ages of four and 14; it is also done to infants, women who are about to be married and, sometimes, to women who are pregnant with their first child or who have just given birth. It is often performed by traditional practitioners, including midwives and barbers, without anesthesia and using scissors, razor blades or broken glass.
    Child Marriage
  • As of 2007 worldwide, more than 60 million women aged 20–24 were married before they reached the age of 18. The extent of child marriage varies substantially between countries, but about half of the girls who are affected live in South Asia.
  • In the developing world, the latest international estimates indicate that more than one third of women aged 20–24 were married or in union before the age of 18. In some regions, the incidence of child marriage is particularly high, at 46 per cent in South Asia, and 39 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the latest estimates.
  • Child marriage is becoming less common overall, but the pace of change is slow. In the six countries where child marriage is most prevalent, more than 60 per cent of women 20-24 years old married as children.
  • Girls from poorer households are more likely to be married as children than girls from richer households.
  • Data for 47 countries show that, overall, the median age at first marriage is gradually increasing. But the pace of change is slow in many countries. In Bangladesh, Guinea and Nepal, for example, the median age at first marriage has increased but remains below 18.
  • If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19.
    Children Associated with Armed Forces and Groups
  • An estimated 250,000 children are involved in conflicts around the world. They are used as combatants, messengers, spies, porters, cooks, and girls in particular are forced to perform sexual services, depriving them of their rights and their childhood.
  • Since the beginning of 2008 alone, UNICEF and partners on the ground have been involved in the direct release of over 12,600 children from various armed forces and armed groups in 9 countries, including 1,648 girls. 
  • UN Country Task Forces on the monitoring and reporting of grave child rights violations, including child recruitment, have been established in 14 countries: Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, Nepal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, the Philippines and Uganda.
  • In 2006, an estimated 18.1 million children were among populations living with the effects of displacement. Within that group 5.8 million were refugees and 8.8 internally displaced.
  • A 2004 report found that in at least 65 countries around the world, boys and girls are recruited into Government military forces, either legally as volunteers, or illegally through force or deception.


Child Trafficking

  • Estimation of the number of child trafficking continues to be a challenge given the clandestine nature of the crime. Variation in the numbers prevail depending on methodology used. ILO in 2005, for example, estimated that 980,000 to 1,250,000 children - both boys and girls - are placed in a forced labour situation as a result of trafficking ( 
  • Evidence from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that more than 20 per cent of victims of all trafficking, both within countries and across borders, are children, while the 2006 US Department of State Annual Trafficking in Persons report notes that of the 600,000 – 800,000 trafficked across international border annually, 50% are children ( 
  • In parts of West Africa, the Mekong region in East Asia, and some countries in Central and South America, children are the majority of persons being trafficked, although information from UNODC (2009) shows that of survivors identified in 61 countries, 13 per cent were girls and 9 per cent were boys.
  • Given continued focus on trafficking for sexual exploitation, available information continues to cite sexual exploitation as by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79 per cent), followed by forced labour (18 per cent). (Global Report on Trafficking (2009) p. 51). The victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly women and girls. 
  • Recent data gathered in 46 countries suggest that women make up a disproportionately large proportion of traffickers. This information could be interpreted in a number of ways. Whether or not these women are “traffickers” or facilitators of movement needs to be analysed.  The information that some 80% of those trafficked are women and girls (Department of State, 2006 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report) also could mean that these “victims” would have a greater tendency to trust women than men.
  • Trafficking in human beings is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing transnational crimes.  According to recent publication by ILO, it is estimated that some $32 billion per year profit is made by criminals who exploit trafficked victims for both sexual and economic exploitation (2009, ILO Global Report on Forced Labour, The Cost of Coercion).
    Children without Parental Care
  • It has been estimated that more than 2 million children are in institutional care around the world, with more than 800,000 of them in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS). This global estimate is likely to be severely underestimated due to under-reporting and lack of reliable data. Many institutions are unregistered and many countries do not regularly collect and report data on children in institutional care.
  • More than 17.5 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, over 14 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In 2007 more than 82 million children in South Asia and East Asia had lost one or both parents due to all causes.
    Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse of Children
  • There are few accurate statistics regarding sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children as these crimes are often covert, secret and associated with intense feelings of shame that prevent children and adults from seeking help and reporting them.
  • Although statistics in relation to sexual abuse and exploitation are broad estimations and should be treated with caution, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 are estimated to have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence and exploitation involving physical contact.  In 2000, it was estimated that 1.8 million children were being sexually exploited in prostitution and pornography.  Around 1 million children are thought to enter prostitution every year.
  • Although the majority of the child victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are girls, both girls and boys, of all ages and backgrounds, everywhere in world, fall victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

    Justice for Children
  • More than 1 million children are detained through justice systems worldwide at any one time, although this is likely to be a significant underestimate given the difficulties in obtaining data about the many unreported children in custody. Not only are data collected inconsistently, they often do not include children awaiting trial, young children detained with their parents or children held temporarily by the police.
  • Among 44 countries for which data were available, around 59 per cent of children in detention had not been sentenced.
  • The vast majority of children in detention have not committed serious offenses. Many are only charged with status offenses, such as running away from home, violation of child-related curfews, truancy or alcohol use. Children are also detained in the context of immigration, mental health concerns or for ‘their own protection’. Children who are victims of crime and children who are witnesses to crime are often ‘re-victimized’ by justice systems that are not adapted to children’s rights and needs.
  • Five countries are known to have applied the death penalty to children since January 2005.

    Children with Disabilities
  • It is estimated that, overall, some 650 million people worldwide live with a disability. 
  • Reliable statistics on children with disabilities are difficult to obtain. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 10 per cent of the world’s children and young people, some 200 million, have sensory, intellectual or mental health impairment. Around 80 per cent of them live in developing countries.
  • The reported incidence and prevalence of impairment in the population vary significantly from one country to another. Specialists, however, agree on a working approximation giving a minimum benchmark of 2.5 per cent of children aged 0-14 with self-evident moderate to severe levels of sensory, physical and intellectual impairments.
  • An additional 8 per cent can be expected to have learning or behavioural difficulties, or both.
  • Mortality for children with disabilities under five can be as high as 80 per cent in some income poor countries.
  • Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to physical violence and sexual, emotional and verbal abuse, and in some instances, the disability is itself caused by maltreatment.
  • Data for 15 countries show that, in 7 of the countries, parents of children who screened positive for disability were significantly more likely to report hitting them either on their face, head or ears, or repeatedly and as hard as possible. In only two of the countries were children who screened positive for disability significantly less likely to be hit. (In six countries, the relationship between disability screening status and likelihood of being hit was statistically insignificant.)

Updated: 12/21/2009 




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