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Money that could be spent on building young lives is instead wasted on destruction.

The effects of violence against women on early childhood

Violence is a public health issue in almost every industrialized and developing country in the world, exacting a price in lives, injuries and disabilities, leaving physical and psychological wounds, some of which never heal. The poor are the most likely victims and perpetrators of violence. Women and children, more often than others, are the targets of a wave of rage and aggression that is on the rise across continents due to a complex set of economic, political, social and cultural reasons.28

As violence strikes at the rights of women in every phase of their lives, infants and young children are twice exposed. First is through direct attacks: In some regions of the world, especially in South Asia, violence shows itself in systematic female foeticide and female infanticide.29 In other regions, violence against children is less obvious in its manifestation but not in its effects: Less nutritious food, health care and schooling mean a quiet death for unknown numbers of young children, with young girls and children with disabilities especially at risk.

The second exposure for infants and young children is through their mothers. Women’s powerlessness, caused by both inequality and abuse, threatens babies and young children. Each year, almost 8 million stillbirths and early neonatal deaths occur due to women’s poor health and nutrition during pregnancy, inadequate care during delivery and lack of care for the newborn.30 A Nicaraguan study found that children of women who were sexually or physically abused by their partners were 6 times more likely than other children to die before the age of five. The children of abused women were more likely to be malnourished and less likely to be immunized or to receive oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea.31

Domestic violence. Violence that occurs in the home is a health, legal, economic, educational, developmental and, above all, a human rights issue. It cuts across boundaries of culture, class, education, income, ethnicity and age. Relatively hidden and ignored, it is the most prevalent form of violence against women and girls.32 In the United States alone, estimates are that anywhere from 2 million to 4 million women are violently attacked by their husbands each year.33

Violence in the home undermines child survival, and children who witness abuse or are themselves abused exhibit poor health and behaviour problems. Their rights are violated by acts of aggression from those they should be able to count on to protect them. Children who are sexually abused are left traumatized, unable to build the relationships of trust and intimacy that are essential for their healthy development. 34

It is a tragic irony that women and children are often in the greatest danger in the place where they should feel the most secure — in the home. Violence against women often equates to violence against children, and it perpetuates the cycle as it passes on destructive behaviours and negative role models to the growing and ever-watchful child.

Like other children living in violent households, for example, Martha, Angela, Colman and Grace run the risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. The six-year-old boy may have already learned the role of batterer from his father. The cycle of violence can only be broken through early intervention. Clearly, changing the power dynamics between men and women bodes well for children. Tanzania’s push to include men in its early childhood care programmes makes sense. By addressing family and community attitudes towards women, the country may rescue nine-month-old Grace from a lifetime of beatings and discrimination.


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