This week, the world’s finance ministers and policymakers will meet in Addis Ababa to agree on how to finance the world’s development agenda for the next 15 years. Leaders are not short on ideas of what they should consider investing in— increasing children’s access to education, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, ending hunger, improving public health and sustaining the environment—there are a number of major challenges that face our global community. Some issues, including ones that are driving many of the most pressing problems in development, aren’t receiving adequate investment or attention.
Violence against both girls and boys is one such challenge. This devastating human rights violation affects an estimated billion children each year, leading to consequences that cost the world economies $7 trillion annually. We also now know that continued exposure to violence, as a victim or a witness, has significant detrimental effects on the development of a child’s brain that can lead to social, emotional, and behavioral problems – a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that can last a lifetime.
There has been great progress recently in highlighting the impact of violence on women and girls around the world. Public-private partnerships such as Together for Girls, Girls Not Brides, and The Girl Effect are shining a light on the problems facing girls worldwide as well as drawing attention to potential solutions. These efforts are generating a groundswell and the beginning of an important movement. World governments have taken notice. Last year, the UK held a high-level summit on sexual violence in conflict, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women has now been signed by 47 countries, and recently Nigeria became the latest in a growing list of countries to ban female genital mutilation.
As we continue to advocate for girls’ rights, we can also recognize that stopping violence against boys is also critically important. In every country, across economic and social divides, boys are vulnerable to violence, too. Violence is the leading cause of death for adolescent boys in the Americas and a top five cause of death globally. Unfortunately, boys are too often only seen as perpetrators of violence rather than survivors in need of care and support.
Boys, Not Soldiers
Girls are more vulnerable to some types of violence, such as sexual violence, forced child marriage and intimate partner violence, with significant consequences to their reproductive health. Some boys face these experiences as well with far-reaching consequences.
For example, 73 million boys under the age of 18 have experienced sexual violence and 156 million men alive today were married as children. Violence Against Children Surveys in sub-Saharan Africa also show that more than half of boys are physically abused by an adult relative, intimate partner or authority figure during their childhood.
In other areas, boys are in greater danger of suffering violence: Almost one in five victims of homicide are children and boys account for 70% of these. In conflict, boys are especially vulnerable to forced recruitment as child soldiers, with up to 90% of the world’s estimated 250,000 child soldiers being boys.
Stopping the Cycle of Violence and Crime
Violence is like a transmitted disease and growing up around violence is the single best predictor that a child will go on to become either a victim or perpetrator of violence as adults. It increases the chances of dropping out of education, suffering from addiction, and becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty. These psychological effects and the learned behaviors that result from regular exposure to violence are the very things that ensure the cycle of violence is continued against women and girls, and within families and communities.
For boys, gender norms often make admitting they are victims of violence and seeking help difficult if not impossible. Boys who have been sexually assaulted and who do finally disclose that abuse, on average don’t do so until 22 years after the assault has happened. That’s 10 years later than women. Rarely, especially in lower and middle-income countries, do either girls or boys receive the support programs they so sorely need.
Addressing Boys’ Vulnerabilities
Parenting programs for caregivers and school-based clubs that teach adolescents safe dating practices can help address the problem. Programs that interrupt violence and provide mentors are also showing results in homicide and gang prevention. Ensuring comprehensive services, including counseling and mental health support are available and police, teachers, social service providers and healthcare workers are trained to identify violence and coordinate support also help make it safer for children to disclose violence.
To create an inclusive and effective set of Sustainable Development Goals for the next 30 years, let’s not forget that we can make life better for every child by investing in breaking the cycle of violence for all of us.
To read about a small selection of programs that are working to end violence in the lives of boys and girls, see the infographic on boys’ vulnerability to violence: www.target16-2forkids.org/boys