Understanding children's experiences boosts global effort to end violence

Physical and emotional violence are pervasive and largely accepted aspects of children’s lives, according to a set of new studies published this week. Interviews with children and their caregivers over nearly a decade in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam provide researchers with important new insights on the way violence impacts children as they grow up.

The new findings have been published in the “Understanding Children’s Experiences of Violence” series of working papers produced by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in collaboration with Young Lives . The papers comprise the latest evidence to emerge from UNICEF’s Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children.

“Violence is pervasive in children’s lives – impacting them in the family, in schools, and in the community – and this research, based on interviews with the same children over many years, paints a clearer picture of the intergenerational transmission of violence,” said Catherine Maternowska, UNICEF Innocenti’s lead researcher on the project.

“Understanding how violence affects children as they move through childhood, adolescence and later into young adulthood, gives us important insights into change in a child’s capacities and in the environments where they live, sleep, study and play”.

The new papers reveal unique aspects of the way children from four very different corners of the world perceive and cope with violence. A number of issues also appear to be in common among them as well.

  • Violence is clearly linked to economic shocks in the family, such as death, illness or loss of a job. In Viet Nam children perceived economic hardship as the cause of increased tension and stress leading to more exposure to violence at home. In Peru, children were more often exposed to exploitative child labor and instances of neglect when families had to cope with loss of economic resources.
  • In all four countries, parents and children both articulated the perception that violence is an acceptable or even necessary tool for shaping good behaviour and values. In Peru, children subjected to violence expect to raise their children the same way. In Ethiopia, violence was viewed as an acceptable way to instill a culture of hard work and discipline. In India, violence was articulated by some as an acceptable way to deal with ‘transgressions’ committed by young women and girls. At the same time, children express how they suffer under these often-unbearable conditions.
  • Violence, according to children across all four countries, is a normal consequence of failing to meet responsibilities in the home and at school—linking two important spheres in children’s lives. In India almost all children experienced corporal punishment in school. In Viet Nam, children feared being beaten by their parents for poor grades on school exams. In Ethiopia, violence was often experienced as a result of failing to perform agricultural chores properly.
  • Experiences of violence change depending on age, gender and setting. In India girls and young women commonly experience sexual harassment referred to as ‘eve-teasing’ in public ranging from verbal taunts to groping. In Ethiopia, boys are far more likely to report instances of physical violence at home while girls reported insults and harassment by boys in the community. In Viet Nam, the strong social preference for boy children put women and girls at greater risk of violence.

Qualitative research conducted by Young Lives addressed children’s well-being, their experiences of transitions (for example, changing schools), and their time-use and daily experiences. Multiple qualitative research methods were used including one-to-one interviews, group discussions and creative activities (such as drawings of a child ‘doing well’ or ’doing badly’), and body mapping carried out in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2014.

In Ethiopia between 130 and 150 interviews were conducted with children and caregivers in each round. In India some 400 children and caregivers were interviewed in each round. In Viet Nam 72 children and caregivers were interviewed in each round. In Peru 100 children and caregivers participated in the interviews.

A highly important component of the Understanding Children’s Experiences of Violence series is the documentation of children’s narratives over time, as children enter into adulthood. In some cases children participating in the study were married by the time of the most recent round of interviews was completed. These narratives provide powerful new documentation which can help direct more effective interventions.

Ravi’s story from the India qualitative interviews provides a good example. As a small child, Ravi witnessed his father beating his mother and he attempted to intervene. He also went on to try and protect his sister from her violent husband.

At age 13 Ravi told researchers:

“When my mum and dad fight I feel very bad. When my dad beats my mum we try and stop him.”

But as a married man, aged 21, Ravi is resorting to violence against his own wife.

“When she tells lies she gets a beating. Every day. She won’t keep quiet. I get angry. If I go out somewhere, she will say: ‘Why did you take so long?’ ”

According to Catherine Maternowska: “Stories like Ravi’s provide powerful data which helps us understand how and when we can effectively intervene to prevent violence. At age 12, when Ravi was very opposed to violence, a supportive violence prevention programme addressing the consolidation of gender norms before they set in could have possibly helped change his desire to use violence later in life.”

Read more on the Multi Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children.