Violence against children and children’s rights

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?

Children are subject to corporal punishment and psychological violence around the world

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 bar chart here 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.

Violent discipline is slightly less common in richer countries

As we see in the scatter chart, 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.

Children often experience both corporal punishment and psychological violence

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 stacked bar chart 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)1
Unicef 2014 fig 5.3

Parents’ perceptions about violent discipline

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 here, 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 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.

Violent discipline against boys and girls

Is violent discipline used similarly often against boys and girls?

As this scatter plot 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.

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.

(NB. This other interactive chart shows estimates of self-reported physical punishment by teachers among children age 15)

Child Labor

Bullying and violence at school

Bullying

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.”2

Bullying is an important form of violence at schools in many countries, and is prevalent across all regions. The map here 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.

Fights

Physical fighting in schools is common

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 map here shows the percentage of 13 to 15-year-olds who reported being involved in physical fighting in the prior year.

Physical fighting at school tends to be more common among boys

In most countries the prevalence of physical fighting tends to be higher among males than females, though 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)3
Unesco 2016 fig 17.6

Violent crime in US schools

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

This chart plots the prevalence of violent crimes in schools, among students aged 12 and older in the US. It covers both completed and attempted crimes, including rape, sexual assault and personal robbery.

As we can see, there has been a large reduction in violent crimes in schools in the US over the last couple of decades.

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.”4

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 abuse of 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.

Different forms of sexual abuse

This visualization provides a comparison of different forms of sexual abuse 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)5
Sexual abuse before 18 by type of abuse

Sexual abuse of boys

Contrary to common perception, boys also report experiences of sexual abuse, 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.6

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.7

Marriage and informal unions are very common in many parts of the world

Child marriage is legal in several countries, including also rich countries such as Canada, where the minimum age of marriage is 16.

There have been reductions in child marriage rates over the last few years

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)8
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.

This 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.

Child homicides

According to UNICEF every 7 minutes somewhere in the world, an adolescent is killed by an act of violence. The map here 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.

Corporal punishment and behaviour

Is corporal punishment an effective method of discipline?

In a recent study, Gershoff, Sattler and Ansari (2017)9 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 maltreatment is common and takes many forms. From physical or emotional abuse, to child labor and other practices that violate their most basic rights.

Violence against children, at home, schools, or in the broader society, affects educational outcomes. It affects whether children are able to attend and remain in school, as well as whether they make progress in terms of learning outcomes. And at the same time, educational outcomes affect violence – education has been identified as a tool to reduce violence against children.

In this section of the entry we focus on the importance of child maltreatment specifically in the context of children’s education and give an overview of the empirical evidence.

Children who work tend to attend school less frequently

Child labor constitutes in most situations a violation of children’s rights, as it is often linked to several forms of abuse and harm. Specifically in the context of education, child labor is often linked to poor educational outcomes. The chart here, from Schultz and Strauss (2008),10 shows evidence for this. It plots school attendance rates for children aged 10–14 years olds, against total hours worked in the last week (by type of work) with 95 percent confidence intervals (labeled CI and plotted in lighter shades).

Children who work more hours tend to attend school less frequently. And the steepest segments of the pictured curves are in the range 20-45 hours, which suggests — as one would naturally expect — that it is most difficult for a child to attend school when approaching full-time work.

This evidence also shows that there is no significant difference between children engaged in domestic or marketed work.

School Attendance vs. Hours Worked – Schultz and Strauss (2008) 11
School Attendance vs. Hours Worked, from Eric V. Edmonds "Child Labor", Chapter 57 in T. Paul Schultz, John Strauss (2008), Handbook of Development Economics, Volume 4. North Holland.

In countries where children tend to work longer hours, it is more common that working children remain out of school

The chart above shows the relationship between school attendance and hours worked using micro data, which means that the authors investigate the relationship across individual households. A similar pattern can also be seen in the data if we look at the corresponding country-level macro variables: In countries where children tend to work longer hours, it is more common that working children remain out of school. The interactive chart below shows this by plotting country-level average hours worked by children against share of working children who are out of school.

These correlations on the micro and macro level are of course not enough to establish a causal relationship. There are many potential economic and cultural factors that simultaneously influence both schooling and work decisions; and in any case, the direction of the relationships is not obvious—do children work because they are not attending school, or do they fail to attend school because they are working?

A number of academic studies have tried to investigate whether there is indeed a causal relationship by attempting to find a factor (an ‘instrumental variable’) that only affects whether a child works without affecting how the family values other uses of the child’s time. These studies – like Rosati & Rossi 2003 or Gunnarsson, Orazem & Sanchez 2006) – suggest that there is indeed a causal relationship: work often does determine whether a child remains in, or drops out of, school.12

Students who are victims of abuse at school tend to have worse educational outcomes

Children who are victims of physical or psychological abuse tend to have worse educational outcomes; and while evidence supporting a causal link is scarce, it is important to pay attention to these correlations.

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 the affected children. 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).13

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).14

These correlations also extend to other forms of violence and other types of educational outcomes. Within schools, for instance, violence between children tends to go together with poor learning outcomes. The following chart provides an example of this correlation. It shows, for a number of countries, the percentage of grade 8 students scoring above the low international benchmark in the TIMSS mathematics test, by their involvement in physical fights in school. Numeracy results were consistently higher among children not involved in physical fights in school.

School fighting vs Minimum proficiency in maths – UNESCO (2016)15
Unesco 2016 school fights timss

Abuse in early years can undermine lifelong learning

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.16

Again, 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 scientists attribute to sensory neglect in early childhood. The source is Perry (2002).17 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 education 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.18

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)19
Ct scan neglect

The interaction between violence and education operates in both directions

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).20

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 behaviour reduced violent punishment drastically (Sim et al. 2014).21

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: https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/overview/