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Surprises in global perceptions of child abuse

A Unicef report, the largest survey ever on violence against children, reveals unexpected attitudes that justify such abuse. Exposing these perceptions is half way to ending – and changing – them.

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UNICEF Ambassador Selena Gomez embraces the women of a Violence Watch Group in Nepal after hearing of their work to mediate cases of conflict, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and more.

Courtesy of U.S. Fund for UNICEF/Josh Estey/MatiHati

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When the United Nations set out to compile data on the extent of violence affecting children worldwide, it made a wise choice. It decided to go beyond simply tallying up such violence. It also probed the perceptions often used by individuals to justify violent acts on society’s most innocent.

Insights on these “attitudes,” published last week in a UN report entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight,” revealed a few surprises:

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Globally, nearly half of adolescent girls say a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances, such as arguing with her husband, neglecting the children, or burning the food. In nearly half of the countries, a larger proportion of girls than boys believe that wife-beating is sometimes justified. In a few countries, twice as many girls believe this.

Only about one in five adults say physical punishment is necessary to raise or educate a child. That holds about equally for mothers and fathers. Yet 6 in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 are subjected to corporal punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis.

For teenage girls who were sexually and/or physically abused, nearly half never told anyone about it, likely out of fear or shame. Their silence may help explain why 1 in 10 girls have experienced serious sexual violence, according to the report by Unicef, the UN children’s agency.

These figures help highlight the “hidden attitudes and social norms that may perpetuate violence against children,” the report states.

Yet just as easily, attitudes can change. The report cites at least one example, Finland, in which adult acceptance of corporal punishment fell from 47 per cent in 1981 to 17 per cent in 2012.

A key to reducing violence against children is to uncover these ways of thinking and erode their acceptance. This survey, the largest compilation of statistics on the topic, goes a long way to do that.

“All children have the right to protection from violence, regardless of the nature or severity of the act: a slap by a parent, emotional humiliation inflicted by a peer, the unwanted sexual advances of a boyfriend, physical assault by a stranger,” the report states.

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It lays a few action steps for individuals to take:

1. Support positive parent-child interactions.

2. Help children protect themselves by developing critical thinking and the ability to communicate effectively.

3. Shift social norms that justify violence affecting children.

And, of course, more surveys on such attitudes are needed.  Government programs can help. But half the battle is exposing the thoughts of perpetrators and their enablers – and then changing them. A global effort to do so has only begun.