Most Vulnerable Children

There are at least 93 million children with disabilities around the world. Many are considered to be a cause of shame to their families and a curse and misfortune for their communities. The lives of children with disabilities can be surrounded by stigma, discrimination, cultural prejudices, ill-perceptions and shocking invisibility. In addition, children with disabilities are at dramatically heightened risk of violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation.

In spite of limited data and research, available studies reveal an alarming prevalence of violence against children with disabilities – from higher vulnerability to physical and emotional violence when they are young to greater risks of sexual violence as they reach puberty.

Indeed, children and adolescents with disabilities are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience physical and sexual violence and neglect than other children; and they are at significantly increased risk of experiencing sexual violence: up to 68% of girls and 30% of boys with intellectual or developmental disabilities will be sexually abused before reaching their 18th birthday.

The new global development agenda includes for the first time a specific target (16.2) to end all forms of violence against all children. The new agenda provides a shared sense of purpose and a renewed impetus to worldwide efforts while leaving no child behind. This is also an obligation States have undertaken by ratifying international human rights treaties.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that all children, including children with disabilities, are entitled to protection from all forms of violence. States are required to take all appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the rights of children without discrimination of any kind.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities affirms that all persons with disabilities, including children, should enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms and should be protected from "all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse, including their gender-based aspects". Girls with disabilities, in particular, "are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation". 

Children with disabilities, out of fear or as a result of lack of information, may feel pressed to conceal their suffering, afraid of stigmatization, harassment or reprisals and might not be able to make a complaint or report the incident of violence they suffer, and they may believe they could lose the support of their caregivers and the attention and love of the individuals they depend on.

Incidents of violence reported by children with disabilities are largely dismissed as their caregivers are often unprepared and ill-trained to consider the complaints and to effectively take them into account. There is a prevailing perception that children with disabilities are not able to tell their stories clearly and are easily confused.

In many countries, legislation does not recognize the testimony of children with disabilities and the law does not allow them to sign their names in legal documents or to give evidence under oath. There is a conspiracy of silence and widespread impunity surrounding these incidents of violence.

“It is urgent to adopt in all countries legislation banning all forms of violence against all children and to establish effective and well-resourced child and disability sensitive mechanisms to prevent and address incidents of violence.

It is essential to invest in awareness raising and information, including research about child disability and the forms and prevalence of violence compromising the enjoyment of their rights. This can be best done if we work together with children with disabilities and their families, and organizations promoting their rights”.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) 

Violence in schools and other educational settings is a worldwide problem. Students who are perceived not to conform to prevailing sexual and gender norms, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), are more vulnerable. Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, also referred to as homophobic and transphobic violence, is a form of school-related gender-based violence. It includes physical, sexual and psychological violence and bullying and, like other forms of school-related violence, can occur in classes, playgrounds, toilets and changing rooms, on the way to and from school and online. 

Students who are not LGBT but are perceived not to conform to gender norms are also targets. School-related homophobic and transphobic violence affects students’ education, employment prospects and well-being. Students targeted are more likely to feel unsafe in school, miss classes or drop out. Homophobic and transphobic violence also has adverse effects on mental health including increased risk of anxiety, fear, stress, loneliness, loss of confidence, low self-esteem, self-harm, depression and suicide, which also adversely affect learning.

Most data available on homophobic and transphobic violence focus on bullying. Homophobic and transphobic bullying involves physical bullying (including repeated hitting, kicking and taking, or threatening to take, possessions); and psychological bullying including verbal bullying (repeated mocking, name calling and unwanted teasing) and social or relational bullying (repeated exclusion, gossiping, the spreading of rumours and the withholding of friendship).

Cyber bullying is a type of psychological bullying. It includes repeated threats, criticism or unkind comments or images that are sent using information and communication technology, such as mobile phones, email and social media, including chat rooms and networking sites. Although available data mostly focus on bullying, LGBTI students can be the targets of other forms of violence, including sexual violence. In addition to these overt acts of violence, also categorized as explicit violence, the education sector as a whole can also produce ‘implicit’ homophobic and transphobic violence, also referred to as ‘symbolic’ or ‘institutional’ violence, which consists of education policies and guidelines that voluntarily or involuntarily reinforce or embed negative stereotypes related to sexual orientation and gender identity, including in curricula and learning materials. This can result in excluding LGBTI students, for example, through school-level policies that deny students the right to express their chosen gender identity, and through measures such as gender-specific uniforms and hair regulations.

Children who are perceived as non-conforming are also more likely to be the target of violence in the community and in their home.

Source: Out in the Open – education sector response to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, Summary Report, UNESCO, 2016