Creating violence-free childhoods: what will it take?

Published on Pambazuka News, by Dipak Naker, March 22, 2012.

Violence against children is a complex problem that requires a holistic solution. In this article, Uganda-based Raising Voices explains the different elements that are needed to add up to sustainable change.

Imagine this as your reality: virtually all your friends say that the adults who are supposed to protect them humiliate them, shout at them, and do not prioritise their needs. Imagine that a third of your friends experience a beating at least once a week, and two thirds of your friends at school say that they are beaten frequently. One in five of the girls you know tells you that her first experience of sex was coerced, and three-quarters of the girls tell you that they have experienced some form of sexual violence, ranging from assault and harassment to uninvited touching. What’s more, one in eight of the boys you know says that he too has experienced some form of sexual violence.  

Imagine this further: that even though all this is ‘known’, no one talks about it. You are certainly not allowed to challenge the adults, and there is nothing much you can do: there is nowhere you can go to report your complaint and, if you did, nobody would take your grievances seriously. You feel rage and a profound sense of injustice, and you have no outlet for these feelings. If you are in an earlier stage of your childhood, you do not even have the ability to articulate what you are feeling, and you learn that this is just how things are. You accept that when there is nothing you can do, it is better to focus your energy on surviving instead of fighting back. So you begin a lifelong journey of editing your feelings, your sense of outrage, and learn to be compliant. In important ways you learn that you can’t truly express how you feel, and what you think, because that would not be an acceptable way of behaving. Does this sound like an excessively bleak picture? That is how 1400 children we talked with described their childhood (Naker, 2005). Admittedly, it is not the whole picture. Many children do overcome the disadvantages of such a childhood and manifest joy and laughter in their lives. They do learn to cope with this reality and, despite its burdens, thrive and achieve and even succeed. But many don’t cope, and none should have to.

Almost every child we talked with said there was too much violence in their life and they wanted something to be done urgently. With foresight and wisdom way beyond their age, many of them asked, ‘If we spend our childhood in anger, being humiliated, ignored and marginalised, what kind of a future will we create?’ Such clarity creates an imperative to act and, understandably, many agencies develop an emergency response. However, as a result of years of experience, we have learned that good intentions alone are not enough. We need to think hard and interrogate our approaches before pouring resources into them. We have to resist appeasing our conscience in the short term, and think harder about what will work in the longer term … //

… A final word. Sustaining change requires nurturing an accessible ‘change infrastructure’ consisting of institutions, values, capacities and practices that promote justice on an ongoing basis. It means working with local leaders to ensure that community-based response mechanisms are in place and accessible to children who experience violence. It involves working with schools to ensure that they have policies in place to deal with school-based violence against children. It involves working with parents and neighbours to reconceptualise childhood in a positive light. When this work is done well, it changes the operational paradigm irreversibly.

In summary, a complex problem such as violence against children needs a holistic response. It requires the integration of approaches that work at multiple layers of the social ecology. It requires foresight to imagine what is currently not visible, discipline to resist ‘quick fixes’, and resilience to persist way beyond project and funding cycles. This may seem like a daunting prospect for any agency considering how to invest its resources in preventing violence against children. It may even be unrealistic to expect a single agency to ensure that all the pieces are in place. However, if such thinking informs our analysis, it can enable us to position ourselves wisely within the overall enterprise. It can enable us to ask relevant questions and collaborate strategically with others doing different pieces of the work. It may enable us to make an informed judgement about how likely our investment is to yield the meaningful outcomes we all seek. Imagine this as our reality 30 years from now: we have transformed the social norms that perpetuate violence against children. We have built the change infrastructure necessary for the experience of childhood to be accessible to a large number of children worldwide. We are beginning to see the first cohort of children emerging into adulthood with their sense of self not limited by the threat of interpersonal violence, and their vision for the future coloured with possibilities. What kind of world might they end up creating? What might they think of the legacy we have created for them? What value might you put on such an inheritance for succeeding generations? (full long text, Note and References).

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