One in ten girls has been sexually assaulted. Six in ten children are regularly beaten by their caregivers. Half of all girls between the ages of 15 and 19 believe a man is “justified” in hitting his wife. Nearly one in five homicide victims are children.
Those are just a few of the findings in a new report from UNICEF that details the “shocking prevalence” of violence and abuse against children around the world. The study — which represents the largest-ever compilation of information on the scope of child abuse — draws on data from 190 countries, and concludes this type of violence has been so normalized that many children are growing up with the assumption it’s just the way the world is supposed to work.
“What we didn’t know until now was the extent of the problem,” Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF’s deputy executive director, told the Associated Press. “Too many victims, perpetrators and bystanders see it as normal, and when violence goes unnoticed and unreported we fuel the belief among children that it is normal.”
That’s partly because children are typically being abused by the family members and authority figures who are supposed to protect them. With the exception of some countries in Latin America, where the child homicide rate is the highest in the world and children are fleeing to the U.S. border to escape murder, the violence inflicted on children is not necessarily a result of wartime or political upheaval. “It occurs in places where children should be safe, their homes, schools and communities,” UNICEF’s executive director, Anthony Lake, noted in a statement.
For instance, among the teen girls who reported they had been subject to “some form of physical violence” since the age of 15, most of them said their assailants were close family members. In countries like India and Zambia, more than 70 percent of victims said their current or former romantic partners were the ones who abused them. Most of those girls never report their assaults.
Confronting violence against children, the UN agency says, involves challenging the cultural norms that have allowed it to flourish for so long. For example, the report finds that about the same portion of boys and girls around the world — nearly 50 percent — believe there are cases when it’s acceptable for husbands to beat their wives. Previous research in the field has found that unhealthy attitudes toward women take root at a young age, and these dynamics are so deeply entrenched that young people simply assume that sexual violence is inevitable.
Officials from the UN agency say that the sobering statistics in their report should compel governments to more seriously address these issues. A separate UNICEF report released this week offers additional solutions for ending violence against children: educating caregivers about alternatives to corporal punishment, giving children the resources to seek support, expanding access to child welfare services, passing laws to protect children, and continuing to collect data about the scope of the problem.