Violence against children and children’s rights

Violations of children’s rights remain tragically common across the world. This entry presents data on this topic.

We cover data on physical and emotional violence against children, as well as data on other common violations of children’s rights, including child labor and child marriage.

Empirical View

Child Labor

We cover this subject in detail in our data entry on Child Labor where you can read more about this topic. Here we provide an overview.

Child labor has declined in the long run

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How common is it today for children to work?

Many children across the world are defined as economically active. In the visualisation below we show the share of children aged 7-14 who are involved in economic activity for at least one hour per week. In high prevalence countries – such as in Cameroon – 6 out of every 10 children ages 7-14 work at least one hour per week.

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In general, work among children tends to be more common in the poorest countries.

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Where do children work?

Seven in ten children in child labour are working in agriculture. This work relates mainly to subsistence and commercial farming and herding livestock, and is often hazardous.

Child labour distribution by age group and economic sector – Global estimates of child labour, ILO (2017)1

Child labor age sector ilo 2017

Contrary to popular perception, most working children in the world (more than two-thirds) are unpaid family workers, rather than paid workers in manufacturing establishments or other forms of wage employment.

Breakdown of ILO-IPEC global estimates of child labour by employment status in 2012- Marking Progress Against Child Labour (2013)

Breakdown of ILO's 2012 global estimates of child labour by employment status

How much do working children work?

Working hours of children vary widely between countries. For working children, this can range from 2-3 hours to more than 30 hours per week, as in Bangladesh.

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The incidence of child labor in a country is a weak predictor of the average number of hours worked by children in the same country. For example, Bangladesh and Ukraine both have a similar proportion of children who work; but in the former case, children tend to work ten times the number of hours.

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Violent discipline

What counts as violent discipline?

The two main forms of violent discipline are corporal punishment and psychological violence.

According to UNICEF, physical discipline, also known as ‘corporal punishment’ refers to any punishment in which physical force is used to cause any degree of pain or discomfort. It includes, for example, pinching, spanking, hitting children with a hand, or forcing them to ingest something.

Violent psychological discipline involves “the use of verbal aggression, threats, intimidation, denigration, ridicule, guilt, humiliation, withdrawal of love or emotional manipulation to control children”.

Violent discipline is a violation of a child’s right to protection from all forms of violence while in the care of their parents or other caregivers, as set forth in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

How common is violent discipline at home?

The two main forms of violent discipline are corporal punishment and psychological violence. Around the world, children are subject to one or both of these. The available data suggests that in some countries, violent discipline is the norm.

The chart below shows the percentage of children aged 2-14 years old who, according to self-reports by caregivers or other household members, experienced any violent discipline at home in the past month, whether in the form of psychological aggression and/or physical punishment.

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Violent discipline is slightly less common in richer countries; but the available data shows that in almost all countries it is only a minority of children who do not experience any violent discipline.

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The evidence shows that violent disciplinary methods often go together, which means in the majority of countries most children experience both corporal punishment and psychological violence. In the chart below we see the percentage of children aged 2-14 years old who experience only psychological violence; only physical violence; and those who experience both.

Percentage of children (2-14) who experience physical punishment and psychological aggression – UNICEF (2014)2

Unicef 2014 fig 5.3

How are parents’ perceptions about violent discipline changing over time?

Long-run data on violent discipline against children is not available for most countries. In the United States, however, the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering data on parents’ perceptions regarding violent discipline for over three decades. The GSS data, plotted in the chart below, shows that today about two-thirds of American parents agree with the statement “Sometimes a child just needs a good, hard spanking.” As the chart below shows, high as this number is, there has been an important reduction over the period. And this is true both for parents who ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’ with spanking.

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Is violent discipline used similarly often against boys and girls?

As the scatter plot below shows, violent discipline is slightly more commonly used against boys than girls. But the differences are not large and the cross-country differences in total violent punishment are much larger than the within-country gender differences. In countries where violent discipline is common, it typically affects most boys and girls.

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How common is violent discipline in schools?

According to figures from the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, in 69 countries corporal punishment has not been fully prohibited in schools.

Data on violent discipline in schools is sparse. But the available estimates suggest this is an important problem in many countries. In India, for example, almost 4 out of 5 children age 8 report physical punishment by teachers.

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Bullying and violence at school


In its broadest sense, bullying refers to the use of aggression to assert power over someone. More specifically, it has been defined by researchers as “actions, either physical or verbal, that have a hostile intent, are repeated over time, cause distress for the victim and involve a power imbalance between the perpetrator and victim.”3

Bullying is an important form of violence at schools in many countries, and is prevalent across all regions. The map shown below shows the percentage of adolescents aged between 13-15 years old who reported being bullied at least once in recent months. Some countries – being highest, on average, across African countries – reported a prevalence greater than 50 percent; countries across the Americas and Europe tended to report slightly lower rates between 20-40 percent.

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Physical fighting in schools is a common form of violence. Available evidence shows that physical fighting tends to go together with worse educational outcomes. The chart below shows the percentage of 13 to 15-year-olds who reported being involved in physical fighting in the prior year.

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In most countries the prevalence of physical fighting tends to be higher among males than females, however it remains common in most countries across both genders.

Percentage of adolescents aged 13 to 15 years who reported having been involved in physical fights over the past 12 months, 2009-2012 – UNESCO (2016)4

Unesco 2016 fig 17.6

In the US, violent crimes in schools are common but less so than in the past

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Sexual violence against children

What are the main forms of sexual violence against children?

Sexual violence against children encompasses situations “in which a child is forced to perform a sexual act by a caregiver or neighbour, pressed to have unwanted sexual intercourse by a dating partner, exposed to sexual comments or advances by a peer or an adult, impelled to engage in sex in exchange for cash, gifts or favours, coerced to expose her or his sexual body parts, including in person or online, subjected to viewing sexual activities or sexual body parts without his or her consent, or raped by a group of persons as part of a ritual, a form of punishment or the cruelty of war.”5

The following are some of the most common forms of sexual abuse:

  • Forced sex: Sexual intercourse or any other sexual acts that were forced, physically or in any other way. Sexual abuse: Sexual touching, unwanted attempted sex, pressured sex and physically forced sex.
  • Sexual touching: Unwanted touching of the victim in a sexual way, such as kissing, grabbing, pinching or fondling.
  • Pressured sex: Situations in which the victim was pressured in some way (e.g., threatening, harassing, luring or tricking) to have sexual intercourse against her or his will and sexual intercourse was completed.
  • Physically forced sex: Situations in which the victim was physically forced to have sexual intercourse against his or her will.
  • Unwanted attempted sex: Situations in which a perpetrator tried to make the victim have sexual intercourse when she or he did not want to but was unsuccessful in completing sexual intercourse.

Self-reported sexual abuse

Data on sexual violence against children is extremely difficult to capture since many victims are not able or willing to report their situation. However, available estimates of self-reported sexual victimization show that this is an extremely common tragedy.

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The following visualization provides a comparison of different forms of sexual violence against women (do bear in mind that the figures are not directly comparable to those in the chart above, since the age brackets do not coincide).

Percentage of women aged 18 to 24 years who report having experienced any sexual abuse before the age of 18, by type of abuse – UNESCO (2017)6

Sexual abuse before 18 by type of abuse

Contrary to common perception, boys also report experiences of sexual violence, but to a lesser extent than girls. However, it is important to bear in mind that it is possible that boys are even less likely than girls to report incidents of sexual abuse.7

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Child marriage and female genital mutilation

Child marriage

Children who are married or in an informal union with an older adult, tend to be particularly vulnerable to violence, especially sexual and domestic violence.8 Marriage and informal unions are very common in many parts of the world.

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And, in fact, child marriage is legal in several countries. This includes also rich countries such as Canada, where the minimum age of marriage is 16.

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Importantly, however, according to the World Bank’s 2017 Economic Impacts of Child Marriage study, in many countries where child marriage is common, there have been reductions in child marriage rates over the last few years.

Share of women in each age group who were married before age 18 – World Bank Featured Story (2017)9

Child marriage changes wb 2017

Female genital mutilation

As noted by the WHO, female genital mutilation has no health benefits for girls and women. But it often does cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths (more details from the WHO Factsheet).

Female genital mutilation remains a common form of violence against women in many parts of the world. And, as it is nearly always carried out on minors, it constitutes a violation of the rights of children.

The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries the Middle East and Asia, as well as among migrants from these areas.

The below chart shows the percentage of women aged 15-49 years old who have gone through partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. Shown are all countries with available data.

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According to UNICEF every 7 minutes somewhere in the world, an adolescent is killed by an act of violence. The following map shows homicide rates for children 0-19 years old, country by country.

As can be seen, there are huge regional differences. In 2015, the homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was almost five times higher than the global average.

(Here you can compare these figures with homicide rates for the general population.)

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Correlates, Determinants and Consequences

Is corporal punishment an effective method of discipline?

In a recent study, Gershoff, Sattler and Ansari (2017)10 analysed data from more than 12,000 families in the US, as part of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, in order to explore whether violent discipline was associated with reductions in misbehavior even after controlling for children’s initial behavior problems and the characteristics of their parents.

The researchers made comparisons between children who had and had not been spanked at 5 years old but were equivalent on 38 other factors (the ‘control variables’). These other factors covered baseline behavior problems (as rated by the teacher), mental health, stress levels and parenting style (as defined by parents’ answers to interview questions).

The study reports that children who experienced violent discipline at age 5 were more likely to have behavior problems later on, according to teachers’ ratings. The study also found that the link between corporal punishment and misbehavior was even stronger if parents said that they had spanked their child the week before the survey, which may be considered a sign of relatively frequent spanking.

To the extent that these results are hard to explain by alternative hypothesis, this is arguably the best evidence we have (outside of an experiment, which is of course not feasible in this context) about the likely negative effects of corporal punishment on children’s behavior.

You can read a summary of this study in this overview article in The Wall Street Journal.

Child violence affects health and education outcomes

A recent study used detailed household surveys from South Africa and Malawi to document the prevalence of violent discipline and subsequent changes in school progress among those affected. The study found that children who were exposed to psychological and physical violence for discipline were more likely to have dropped out of school upon follow-up (Sherr et al. 2015).11 Other studies have found that violence against children also correlates with poor educational outcomes in the long run. In rich countries, for example, studies have found that individuals who are exposed to sexual and physical abuse in childhood are more likely to drop out of college (Boden et al 2007 and Duncan 2000).12

Physical and psychological abuse are often linked to negative effects on mental and physical health. For example, it has been documented that anxiety and depression tend to arise more frequently among children who are abused.13 As usual, these correlations do not imply causation. But there are good reasons to take them seriously. The World Development Report (2018) notes that toxic stress in the early years can undermine lifelong health, learning, and behavior, because the hormones associated with the fight-or-flight response, such as cortisol, can inhibit physical growth and the children’s susceptibility to illness. It is also the case that these hormones can impair the development of neural connections in parts of the brain that are critical for learning.

The following is an example of the type of brain development problems that researchers attribute to sensory neglect in early childhood. The source is Perry (2002).14 The CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three year old with a typical head size (at the 50th percentile of the distribution). The image on the right is from a three year old child suffering from ‘severe sensory-deprivation neglect’ – minimal exposure to language, touch, and social interactions. The brain of the child on the right is significantly smaller than average (3rd percentile) and has signs of deterioration (cortical atrophy).

Of course, this comparison is just an illustration, and it is hard to know with certainty whether the observed differences in brain size can be fully attributed to sensory-deprivation neglect. However, Perry finds that the average head size among a group of 40 children who had suffered sensory neglect is below the 5th percentile in the distribution – and while some recovery in brain-size was observed after children were removed from the neglectful environment, in most cases the gaps remained significant.

These findings are relevant to child development because brain malleability is much greater earlier in life, and brain development is sequential and cumulative; which means that brain deterioration can lead to permanent impairments on skill acquisition.15

Brain scan from a non-neglected child with an average head size (left) in comparison to a scan from a child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect (right) – Perry (2002)16

Ct scan neglect

You can read more about these correlates and consequences in our blog post dedicated to child maltreatment and educational outcomes.


Education can be an effective instrument to reduce violence

The interaction between violence and education operates in both directions, which means education can be used as an instrument to reduce the prevalence of violence. In Uganda, for example, a programme that provided life skills and vocational training for girls who had been forced into sexual acts, led to substantially fewer of these girls being victims of sexual abuse – an impact largely attributed to acquired skills (Bandiera et al. 2017).17

Similarly, parenting interventions that promote skills and knowledge among parents have shown positive effects on domestic violence. In Liberia, for example, a program that provided training in positive parenting and non-violent behavior reduced violent punishment drastically (Sim et al. 2014).18

Data Quality and Measurement

Most of the available cross-country data on violence against children comes from self-reported incidents and behavior in household surveys. This entails two important limitations. First, there is a tendency for self-reported violence to be biased. This is to be expected, since violence against children is often illegal, and even when it is not, it typically involves some of the most private aspects of everyday family life. Secondly, there are often comparability issues, since the survey instruments often change across time and countries.

Despite these limitations, the available data is still helpful to shed light on the rough order of magnitude of the problem. Much work needs to be done to improve data quality and availability on this topic. But what is currently available is already a good place to start.

Data Sources

UNICEF Data: Monitoring the Situation of Children and Women
  • Data Source: UNICEF; Data and Analytics Section; Division of Data, Research and Policy
  • Description of available measures: UNICEF uses the term ‘child protection’ to refer to prevention and response to violence, exploitation and abuse of children in all contexts. This includes reaching children who are especially vulnerable to these threats, such as those living without family care, on the streets or in situations of conflict or natural disasters.
  • Geographical coverage: Global by country (predominantly low and middle income countries)
  • Link: