Lucy Lau and Harmony Multani
An issue as complex and far-reaching as violence against children demands a solution that’s just as expansive. It’s why Jaspreet Bal, a child and youth care professor at Humber College, was so drawn to the Denmark Uganda Vietnam Exchange (DUVE), an international project co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union that aims to end violence against children.
“Any opportunity to be a part of a collaborative conversation that looks at ending violence [against children], I’m there for it,” Bal said.
“I also am very specifically interested in how things without context — text without context — meets context,” she said. “So if you have a universal idea, like ‘Let’s have children’s rights’ or ‘Let’s end violence [against children],’ what happens to that idea when it hits the ground?”
Bal is one of dozens of educators and healthcare workers around the world who joined forces under DUVE in 2018 to uncover just that: What is the most effective way to end violence against children globally?
She concedes the goal of DUVE is a “lofty” but worthy one, considering child abuse is so pervasive — and problematic — the United Nations set a target to end all violence against children by 2030 as part of its Sustainable Development Goals, a list of 17 goals adopted by all 193 UN member states in 2015 that serve as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”
Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates up to one billion children aged two to 17 have experienced some form of physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.
These may include instances of maltreatment, bullying or cyberbullying, domestic assault, non-consensual completed or attempted sexual contact and psychological violence, WHO said.
In a landmark 2013 report that draws on data from 190 countries, the UN noted violence against children is “ever-present” and is experienced by kids “from all walks of life around the world.”
This abuse takes place in many settings, including at home, in schools and in the community, and has a wide range of perpetrators, including family members, teachers, neighbours and strangers, the report said.
In addition, violence against children has short- and long-term consequences for both victims and society at large.
Children who are subject to violence face harm, pain, humiliation and even death, the report said.
They may also experience developmental issues or difficulties learning in school, and suffer from low self-esteem and depression.
Children who are subject to or who witness violence are also more likely to internalize this behaviour, leading them to repeat such patterns of abuse against their own partners and children in the future, the report said.
“Children that are raised in a violent way are sometimes the people that are violent as adults … it goes in a ring,” said Hélène Kelly, project manager of DUVE and an international consultant at Denmark’s University College Absalon.
Making the issue even more complex is the fact that violence against children goes largely undocumented and underreported.
This is because some forms of violence against children are socially accepted or condoned and some victims may be too young or vulnerable to disclose their experiences, the UN said.
Violence against children is also experienced differently in different countries.
In Uganda, one of three countries where DUVE has chosen to focus its efforts, child abuse happens in the form of corporal punishment at schools and maltreatment at home, a 2018 household survey conducted by the UN and the Government of Uganda found.
Child labour and child marriage, which children from impoverished families are often subject to, are also common forms of violence against children in Uganda, the survey said.
This violence is a result of the normalization of child abuse at institutions like homes and schools, where violence against children is often seen as an act of love or as an appropriate form of discipline, the survey said.
Other factors, such as the expectation Ugandan children remain submissive to their elders and an influx of refugees to the country who are grappling with their own experiences of violence and trauma, contribute to Uganda’s rate of childhood abuse, too.
In Canada, violence against children is more insidious, rooted in systemic racism and affects Indigenous and Black children at disproportionately high rates, Bal said.
“Looking at violence against children [in Canada] requires understanding the context of colonialism, genocide, slavery and anti-Black racism — and giving up the idea that we are this peaceful country that doesn’t have problems,” she said.
Bal points to a 2012 report by the UN Committee on the Rights of a Child, which noted Indigenous and African-Canadian children are overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system and out-of-home care.
Indigenous and Black children also receive less financial resources than other children in the child welfare system, the report said.
These groups experience higher high-school dropout rates and “inappropriate and excessive” use of disciplinary measures in the education system, leading to suspensions, referrals to police and their overrepresentation in alternative schools.
Indigenous children also experience higher suicide rates, and Indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse, the report said.
The report urged the Government of Canada to take steps to alleviate the high levels of violence and discrimination experienced by Indigenous and Black children, while ensuring they receive adequate support and services.
Some of these recommendations have since been addressed in papers such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Executive Summary in 2015 and, on a provincial level, Ontario’s Anti-Black Racism Strategy, Bal said.
“Bearing the brunt of violence on your body is very real and very disproportionate in Canada, but the ways that it happens are different,” Bal said.
The radically different ways in which violence against children is experienced around the world — and the complex roots of these forms of abuse — call for a multidisciplinary international approach like DUVE, Kelly said.
The project allows educators and healthcare workers around the world to exchange resources and knowledge so they may more effectively address the issue in their home countries.
“We see the world through what we’re used to. Working with other partners, you get other forms of inside knowledge,” Kelly said.
Kelly travels regularly to Uganda and Vietnam to conduct lectures and seminars with educators, healthcare workers and other people who work directly with children about the consequences of childhood abuse.
She also organizes global workshops at the University College Absalon where DUVE participants such as Bal, who first met Kelly and her team at a conference in Denmark in 2017, may connect in-person to exchange ideas.
DUVE’s next step is to build an online platform — one “without pity, without poverty porn, without all the traps of some of the other resources out there,” Bal said — where they may share their knowledge and findings with anyone around the world who is interested in ending violence against children in their own communities.
“Ending it in Canada is not going to look the same as ending it in Uganda,” Bal said. “But the goals and ideals are the same.”