Invisible Children

Demographics of Invisibility

Children Threatened by Violence and Abuse


People in poverty suffer inordinately from violence.  Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, authors of The Locust Effect, a review of the impact of violence on low-income people globally, wrote, “Violence is as much a part of being poor as being hungry, sick, homeless, or jobless.”[i]  Extreme poverty can create desperation that can render communities, streets and even homes unsafe.  Recent research has shown a co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment in both high and low-income societies.  As many as 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in some form - in their homes, on the streets, at school or during civil conflicts.[ii]

Violence permeates a life on the streets, a life governed by poverty and devoid of hope. While hundreds of thousands of young people are engaged as child soldiers, the ILO estimates that twice as many are involved in illicit criminal activities, including the production and distribution of illegal drugs, the production of pornography, and prostitution.[iii] As small and relatively inexpensive ‘employees,’ children are an attractive market for criminal labor.

In Mexico, the Children’s Rights Network estimates that 30,000 children work for the drug cartels. Generally, girls repackage quantities of narcotics for sale on the streets and boys work as lookouts. Some children, however, are asked to be couriers or assassins.[iv] In Afghanistan – which supplies much of the illicit global market for opiates – hundreds of children reportedly labor in the poppy fields, preventing their schooling and exposing them to significant risk including drug addiction.[v]

Gang membership codifies criminal behavior through affiliation with a substitute ‘family’ that enforces discipline while providing a sense of belonging often absent in children’s daily lives. In El Salvador, where estimates of youth gang membership range from 10,500 to 39,000, initiation for new gang members can involve beatings. Female recruits may be given the option of choosing between being beaten and having sexual relations with members of the gang.[vi] In Cape Town, South Africa, gangs in the growing townships attract children as young as 12.[vii]

Rape and Sexual Violence
Violence perpetrated on young people often takes the form of rape.   In some analyses, rape and sexual violence are seen as an epidemic, and while no one is immune, those from the lower social and economic classes are particularly at risk. [viii]

Due to cultural prejudices, inadequate laws and legal systems that place small value on this particular crime, most instances of rape are not reported.  In Bangladesh, for example, a United Nations study indicated that more than 10% of men surveyed had committed rape, but of these, only 4% had ever faced legal consequences.[ix] 

Accordingly, accurate statistics profiling the impact of rape on children are hard to find.  The World Health Organization asserts that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18, "experienced forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual violence involving physical contact.”[x]  We also know that rape has been a traditional weapon of war.  Up to a quarter million women and girls were raped during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  Aside from the primary objectives of intimidation and subjugation, these acts of violence had other consequences: numerous children were born from these forced unions, and many victims were infected with HIV/AIDS.[xi]  This brutal tactic has been employed in most other civil conflicts since, including the rebellion in the DRC,[xii] and the longstanding civil conflict in Colombia.[xiii]

Stories from Pakistan provide brutal illustrations of rape in war zones. A 16 year-old girl was abducted by a soldier and several policemen and repeatedly raped.[xiv]  Another girl elsewhere in the country was set on fire by her assailant when she resisted his assault.  Although police registered a complaint against the assailant, he remained free, his only immediate concern being the pressure he faced from local politicians to apologize and reconcile with the girl.[xv] 

In some slums the very act of going to the bathroom carries risk.  Because as much as 75% of slum households do not have toilets, hundreds of thousands of young girls must walk some distance to use communal pit latrines.  At night, without lights on the way to the latrines, they are vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence.[xvi]

Cultural traditions can compound the issue.  In many countries around the world, rape victims are sometimes killed by their own families as a matter of honor that frees the girl, the family and the entire village from the shame of rape.[xvii]  Each year approximately 5,000 women and girls are murdered worldwide in ‘honor killings’ by a family member.[xviii]  In Qatif, Saudi Arabia, a young woman who was gang raped by seven men received a six month prison sentence and 90 lashes for being in the company of men who were not relatives.[xix]

The delicate subject of abuse, often unspoken or kept hidden as ‘a private family manner,’ draws in unknown numbers of children.  Many of the stories referenced in Chapter 1 contain elements of abuse, either from family members, employers or friends.  Particularly troubling is abuse perpetrated by those charged with protecting or nurturing the very children they violate.  The Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with issues of clergy abuse in the United States, Ireland, Australia, Belgium and other countries involving thousands of priests and tens of thousands of victims.

As a cultural practice, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)[1] has impacted girls and young women for generations.  Even with heightened public awareness and a subsequent outcry against the practice, FGM persists in 29 countries.  More than 125 million girls have suffered FGM, and more than 30 million remain at risk for undergoing FGM as they come of age this decade.  Many girls enter a state of shock induced by severe pain, psychological trauma and exhaustion.  Some have been cut before their fifth birthday.  In Egypt, more than 90% of those between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, but that astonishing rate lags behind Guinea’s 93% and Somalia’s 98%.[xx]

Child pornography has emerged as an especially destructive manifestation of sexual violence toward the young.  Few hard figures are available other than the simple fact that it is estimated to be a $3 billion global business.[xxi] Harm to the victims can be lifelong and irremediable.   In an internet-based world, once an image is posted or shared it becomes virtually impossible to eliminate it totally, and so children can be stigmatized the rest of their lives, supplementing the immediate trauma and harm attendant to the creation of those images.  Of those arrested for possessing or marketing child pornography in the United States in 2009, 33% percent had photos of children age three or younger, and 42% had images of children that showed sexual violence.[xxii]  Despite Article 34 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all signatories shall take appropriate measures to prevent the involvement of children in the production of exploitive or pornographic materials, 93 countries have no specific laws outlawing child pornography.[xxiii]

Child Marriage
Many cultures regard their daughters as marriageable chattel.  More than 67 million women in low-income countries currently between the ages of 20 and 24 were first married by the age of 18.[xxiv]  Of these, 34 million were in South Asia, 14.5 million were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 3.8 million were in the Middle East and North Africa. [xxv]  An additional 12 million women currently aged 25 to 29 were married before they had turned 15.[xxvi]  To no one’s surprise, girls in poverty are more at risk, up to three times more likely to be wed before the age of 15, than are girls from higher socioeconomic standings.[xxvii]

Many of these marriages are forced, but even if they are consensual the child is too young to have a clear notion of what it is she is consenting to.  In other instances marriage is a financial transaction.  In Malawi, an 11 year old became the second wife of a man in his forties because her parents could not repay their debt to him.  She is not alone:  throughout the world, young girls are forced to marry older men in exchange for money, livestock, or loan forgiveness.   Economic stresses accentuated by drought or the HIV/AIDS pandemic have compelled families to sell their daughters to wealthier households as a means to survive.[xxviii]

There is evidence of child marriage among Syrian refugee girls residing in the Za’atari refugee camp and in Jordan’s urban areas. Media and NGO reports state that some of these marriages have been non-consensual marriages to wealthy Saudi, Egyptian, and Bahraini men. These reports suggest that in some cases, the girls married off were later abandoned or forced into prostitution. Both UN and Jordanian relief agencies estimate that some 500 underage Syrian girls were married off during the reporting period.[xxix]

Early marriage carries hidden risks. The UN Population Fund in its State of the World Population 2013 report indicates that in the developing world two millions girls aged 14 or younger gave birth.  Many of these young mothers suffered serious health consequences, with as many as 70,000 adolescents in these countries dying each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.[xxx]  Because adolescent mothers tend to come from low-income households and lack adequate nutrition, their risk for such complications is abnormally high.[xxxi]

Furthering the risk is the simple fact that the bodies of young teen girls are not fully developed, subject to physical trauma and complications during sex, pregnancy and delivery.   Among those complications is obstetric fistula, the development of a hole between either the rectum or bladder and the vagina during childbirth when adequate medical care is not available.  Obstetric fistula is painful and debilitating, and often leads to young mothers being shunned by their husbands and communities.[xxxii]  

Approximately 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth every year, with all the attendant risks of young pregnancies.  These births constitute 11% of all the world’s births.[xxxiii] 

School Violence
School settings sometimes offer scant refuge from abuse.  At schools children can be subjected to harsh and humiliating verbal abuse, corporal punishment, bullying, and sexual victimization and harassment. Students are exposed to violence from teachers and peers, in classrooms, playgrounds, and on their journeys to and from school.  For too many children, school is a feared and compulsory place of daily violence.

The statistics reflecting this violence are sobering.  In Brazil, a survey of 1,200 students found that 70% had been victims of school violence.[xxxiv]   In Mexico City, 55% of students believe some of their fellow students bring firearms to school.[xxxv]  In South Africa, one-quarter of students report that schools are unsafe, and that rape and violence are major problems.[xxxvi]  And in Nepal, 14% of students who leave school dropout because they fear their teachers.[xxxvii]

The United States has experienced high levels of violence in its schools.  In a study by the Centers for Disease Control, 12% of all high school youth (between grades 9 and 12) reported being in a physical fight on school property within the past year.  As many as 5.9% admitted missing school within the past 30 days because they felt unsafe either at their school on their way to school.  5.4% reported carrying a gun, a knife or a club to school within that past 30 day period.[xxxviii]   New York City has gone so far as to install metal detectors in some schools in rough neighborhoods, a precaution replicated now in many major U.S. city school districts.[xxxix]

We need look no further than the shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in December 2012 to recognize schoolyards are not havens from violence.  And we wrestle with the commonality of these shootings, recognizing that the names of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Oikos University and Northern Illinois and Santa Monica College join with the names of more than 90 schools to have experienced shootings since 2010 alone.

While shootings bring violence to the schools, many schools themselves nurture their own cultures of violence.  At least 78 countries still authorize corporal punishment by teachers, and it is still common in many places that have technically outlawed it.   More than half the secondary school children in Ghana reported being whipped by teachers with wood or metal objects, many reporting serious physical injuries.[xl]  In Bangladesh, nine out of ten schoolchildren report being physically punished.[xli]   In 20 states of the United States, children are routinely hit on the buttocks with a wooden “paddle” or with rulers, and some are pinched, hit, thrown on the floor, and restrained enough to cause bruises.[xlii]   Globally, the most frequent victims of corporal punishment are boys, children with disabilities, and children of ethnic minority status.[xliii]

In some areas girls are the targeted victims of violence in schools.  This may stem from a number of factors, including a desire to limit their participation in the educational process.  The World Health Organization reports that fear of sexual violence is one of the primary reasons girls report not going to school, and that school is the most common place where sexual violence occurs for girls in the developing world, perpetrated by both teachers and peers.[xliv]

In northwest Pakistan more than 800 schools have been bombed since 2009 as part of the Taliban’s efforts to stop girls’ education.   The same group responsible for the shooting of Malala Yousafzai has regularly attacked schools and learning centers where girls are being educated.  And while some teachers have held classes in tents with armed security after their schools have been destroyed, many parents have stopped allowing their daughters to attend out of fear of violence.[xlv]

The abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram extremist group in May 2014 sparked international outrage.  The group’s leader threatened to sell the girls into slavery or forced marriages for the simple “crime” of being a girl in a school.  But Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping was merely the latest in a series of violent attacks on schools in northern Nigeria.  Over the past year scores of schools have been attacked and forced to close, and scores of students have been killed, leaving parents and children afraid of the schools that are supposed to provide education and opportunity.[xlvi]

Domestic Violence
Even within the presumed sanctity of the home, too many children remain at risk.  Young people suffer physical, psychological and emotional abuse all too frequently, and these harsh practices are especially pronounced in areas beset by high levels of economic tension, unemployment, social problems, civil conflict and natural disasters, all of which compound pressure on parents and caregivers, compelling negative, often brutal, reactions.[xlvii]

In Christchurch, New Zealand, reported child physical abuse rates jumped by 20% after the February 2011 earthquake.[xlviii]   A 2007 study in the Netherlands found that the risk for child abuse and neglect is five times higher in families when both parents are jobless.[xlix]  And in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, an area plagued by poverty, the rates of physical and sexual violence towards children are, respectively, four and ten times higher than the national rate.[l]

In Afghanistan corporal punishment in the home is both lawful and common.  According to Afghan law, “parents and legal guardians can discipline their children to the extent that does not require dia (blood money).”[li]  And so corporal punishment is common discipline for children as young as two-years-old, including severe cases like shooting the child and hitting with electric cables.[lii]  In Ghana, approximately 62% of children aged ten to 16 reported beatings by their parents, most frequently with a cane.   Children said it was a reflection of their parents’ love for them and that older children had the authority to punish their younger siblings.[liii]

High-income countries are not immune from such practices.  In the United Kingdom, 160,000 children between ages 15 and 17 – approximately seven percent of all teens - had been hit by a parent in a six month period.[liv]  In the United States an estimated 1,740 child fatalities in 2008 resulted from abuse (including shaken baby syndrome) or neglect by their caregivers.[lv]  And in 2011, one in 12 children in the US witnessed a family assault.[lvi]

The pandemic of violence against children, and especially against children in poverty, is as regular as nightfall.


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[1] Female Genital Mutilation is defined by the World Health Organization as "all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons."
[i] Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 43
[ii] Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect, Oxford University Press, 2013, introduction
[iii] ILO, (2010). Accelerating action against child labour: Global report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 2010. Geneva: ILO. Cf: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011). Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, NGO Advisory Council for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children, p. 29.
[iv] Jason Beaubien, “War turning Mexican kids into targets, killers,” NPR, 1 May 2011, Cf: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011). Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, p. 29.
[v] Afghanistan: Students play truant to work in Helmand’s poppy fields,” IRIN, 18 March 2008, Cf: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011). Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, p. 29.
[vi] International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, (2007), “No Place to Hide: Gang, State, and Clandestine Violence in El Salvador,” February 2007. Cf: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 36.
[vii] Ward, Catherine L., and Karlijn Bakhuis. 2010. "Intervening in Children’s Involvement in Gangs: Views of Cape Town’s Young People." Children & Society 24, no. 1: 50-62. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 2, 2013).
[viii] Haugen and Boutros,  The Locust Effect, p. 53
[ix] http://unwomen-asiapacific.org/docs/WhyDoSomeMenUseViolenceAgainstWomen_P4P_Report.pdf
[x] World Health Organization, Geneva, 2004.
[xi] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/panorama/3586409.stm
[xii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/08/AR2007090801194.html
[xiii] http://www.omct.org/files/2004/07/2409/eng_2003_04_colombia.pdf
[xiv] http://www.humanrights.asia/news/ahrc-news/AHRC-STM-044-2012
[xv] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/Pakistani-girl-burnt-alive-for-resisting-rape/articleshow/21306571.cms
[xvi] Haugen and Boutros, The Locust Effect, p.32.
[xvii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13760895
[xviii] Haugen and Boutros , The Locust Effect, p. 52
[xix] Setrakian, Lara, "Exclusive: Saudi Rape Victim Tells Her Story". ABC News, 2007-11-21.
[xx] http://purposefullyscarred.com/2013/07/22/unicef-report-125-million-survivors-of-fgm/
[xxi] Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D., “Child Pornography: Basic Facts About a Horrific Crime,” Huffington Post, October 17, 2013.
[xxii] Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D., “Child Pornography: Basic Facts About a Horrific Crime,” Huffington Post, October 17, 2013.
[xxiii] Yaman Akdeniz, Internet Child Pornography and the Law: National and International Responses, Ashgate Press, Aldershot, UK, 2008.
[xxiv] DHS, MICS and other national surveys 2000-2009.  Cited in UNICEF, 2011.  “Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse: A Statistical Snapshot, p. 3.
[xxv] DHS, MICS and other national surveys 2000-2009.  Cited in UNICEF, 2011.  “Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse: A Statistical Snapshot, p. 3.
[xxvi] DHS, MICS and other national surveys 2000-2009.  Cited in UNICEF, 2011.  “Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse: A Statistical Snapshot, p. 3.
[xxvii] DHS, MICS and other national surveys 2000-2009.  Cited in UNICEF, 2011.  “Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse: A Statistical Snapshot, p. 4.
[xxviii] Sharon LAFreniere, “Forced to Marry Before Puberty, African Girls Pay Lasting Price,” New York Times, November 27, 2005; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/27/international/africa/27malawi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[xxix] The Sydney Morning Herald. “Wealthy Suitors Seek out Syrian Girls in Refugee Camp.” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 29, 2012; World. http:// www.smh.com.au/world/wealthy-suitors-seek-out-syrian-girls-in-refugee-camp-20121128-2aedp.html#ixzz2EleZA9cd. And Mercy Corps. Analysis of Host Community-Refugee Tensions in Mafraq Jordan. Analysis Report. Amman; October 2012.
[xxx] http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/swp2013/EN-SWOP2013-final.pdf, p.v.
[xxxi] http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/swp2013/EN-SWOP2013-final.pdf, p.18.
[xxxii] Creanga, A. A.; R.R. Genadry,  "Obstetric Fistulas: A Clinical Review". International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics 99 (Supplement 1): S40, November, 2007.
[xxxiii] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs345/en/
[xxxiv] Plan International, (2008). Learn without fear: The global campaign to end violence in schools. Surrey, U.K.: Plan Limited.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011).  Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, NGO Advisory Council for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children, p. 13.
[xxxv] United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC), (2011). Preventing Firearms Proliferation and Armed Violence in Educational Centres of Latin America and the Caribbean. Lima, Peru: United Nations.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 13.
[xxxvi] Transparency International, (2011). “Mapping transparency, accountability and integrity in primary education in South Africa,” July 2011.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 13.
[xxxvii] Plan International, (2008). Learn without fear: The global campaign to end violence in schools.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011).
[xxxviii] http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/schoolviolence/data_stats.html
[xxxix] Michael Powell, “”In a School Built on Trust, Metal Detectors Inject Fear,” New York Times, September 30, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/nyregion/in-a-brooklyn-school-metal-detectors-inject-fear.html
[xl]Twum-Danso, A., (2010). “‘You do not beat the child to spoil his life but because you want to straighten it’: Understanding the physical punishment of children in Ghana,” Presentation for the African Families and Child Protection Research Seminar, University of Sheffield, UK, 8 October 2008.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 14.
[xli] Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, (2011). Prohibiting all corporal punishment in schools: Global Report 2011. London: The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 14.
[xlii] Human Rights Watch, (2009). Impairing education: Corporal punishment of students with disabilities in US public schools. New York: Human Rights Watch. ; Human Rights Watch, (2008). A violent education: Corporal punishment of children in U.S. public schools. New York: Human Rights Watch.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 14.
[xliii] Pinheiro, P.S., (2006). World Report on Violence against Children.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 14.
[xliv] The Locust Effect, p. 55-56
[xlv] Taha Siddiqui and Declan Walsh, “Siege by Taliban Strains Pakistani Girls’ Schools,” New York Times, July 11, 2013; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/world/asia/siege-by-taliban-strains-pakistani-girls-schools.html
[xlvi] Alexis Okeowo, “The Troubled Search for Nigeria’s Stolen Girls,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2014; http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2014/05/the-troubled-search-for-nigerias-stolen-girls.html
[xlvii] Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 7-8.
[xlviii] Rebecca Todd, “Police respond to jump in child abuse,” www.stuff.co.nz, 16 April 2011.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 7-8.
[xlix] Zendoorn, M.H. et al., (2007). Child abuse and neglect in the Netherlands 2005: National prevalence study maltreatment of youth. Leiden, Netherlands: Cashmir Publishers.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 7-8.
[l] “Nunavut parents must protect children: Fraser,” CBC News,15 April 2011, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/story/2011/04/15/nunavut-fraser-children-report.html.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 7-8.
[li] http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/progress/reports/afghanistan.html
[lii] Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, (2008). “The nature and extent of corporal punishment- Prevalence and attitudinal research in South Asia,” March 2008.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 8.
[liii] Twum-Danso, A., (2010). “‘You do not beat the child to spoil his life but because you want to straighten it’: Understanding the physical punishment of children in Ghana,” Presentation for the African Families and Child Protection Research Seminar, University of Sheffield, UK, 8 October 2008.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 8.
[liv] John Carvel, “Teen Smacking Surprises NSPCC,” The Guardian, 8 October 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/ oct/08/children.childprotection. Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 8.
[lv] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Administration for Children & Families, “Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics,” www.childwelfare.gov/sytemwide/statistics/can/cfm.  Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011), p. 8-9.
[lvi] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dont-kill-her-children-who-witness-domestic-violence-carry-lifelong-scars/2014/03/08/d30cc6bc-9d83-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children