Why it is crucial to place the protection of children from violence at the centre of the global sustainable development agenda

The protection of boys and girls from all forms of violence is a concern the international community cannot afford to omit from the post-2015 development agenda.

In fact, freedom from violence is indispensable to a sustainable future in which children will be able to grow up healthy, well-nourished, resilient, well-educated, culturally sensitive and protected from abuse and neglect. A future in which equity and social progress will be a reality for all members of the human family.

Despite important progress made in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), countries affected by violence have been lagging behind. They have a higher risk of poverty and malnourishment, higher levels of child mortality, poorer health and higher rates of children out of school.

The international community can however reverse this pattern by including children’s protection from violence as a clear priority in the post 2015 global development agenda.

Violence remains a harsh reality for millions of children around the world. Pervasive, socially condoned and concealed, violence knows no geographic, cultural, social or economic borders and it happens even where children should feel safest – in care and justice institutions, in schools and also within the home.  

Witnessing violence, experiencing neglect and trauma, enduring intimidation, humiliation and physical aggression, and being subject to abuse and exploitation are frequent dimensions of a sad continuum in children’s lives.

Its impact is often irreversible, especially in younger children who have less ability to seek support and greater chances of suffering long lasting emotional and health damage, compromising the development of the brain, and experiencing insecure attachments and increased risks of aggressive behaviour and self-harm later in life.

Violence goes hand in hand with deprivation, with high risk of poor health, poor school performance, long-term welfare dependency and a deep sense of fear.

Beyond individual victims, violence compromises social progress and sustainable development. It is frequently associated with poor rule of law, weak law enforcement, high rates of homicide and high incidence of organized crime and homicide rates, and a culture of impunity. Moreover, violence brings with it far-reaching costs for society, diverting billions of dollars from social spending, slowing economic development and eroding nations’ human and social capital. Put simply: violence can destroy social and economic gains that took years and decades to build.

Without freedom from violence, the sustainable social and economic development of nations cannot be fully achieved. One important lesson from the MDGs process was that the lack of a clear goal, target or indicator compromised efforts to mobilize action and support, and to monitor progress in children’s protection from violence. And in turn, it compromised progress in related development goals.

This time around, this gap can be effectively addressed with the inclusion of children’s freedom from violence as a clear priority in the post 2015 sustainable development agenda.

In reality, violence against children is not a new topic in the development agenda. It is a core dimension of the right to freedom from fear, proclaimed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and highlighted by the Millennium Declaration and the process generated thereafter.

The Millennium Declaration reaffirmed the right of children to be raised in dignity and free from fear of violence and expressed determination to “spare no effort in the fight against violence.

A decade later, the Millennium Summit expressed commitment to strengthen child protection systems, to enhance accountability, and to prevent and combat all forms of violence against women and girls.

In the lead up to the post 2015 sustainable development agenda, there is a growing agreement on the need to achieve the unfinished business of the MDGs by ensuring that the protection of girls and boys from violence is explicitly incorporated in the development agenda.

As stressed by the UN report “Realizing the future we want for all” “the prevention and reduction of all forms of violence and abuse – and the protection against their specific manifestations […] – should be at the heart of the post 2015 development agenda”.

The High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda echoed this concern, recognizing that the MDGs were silent on the devastating effects of (…) violence on development and did not focus enough on reaching the very poorest and most excluded people. As stressed by the High Level Panel, “freedom from fear and from violence is the most fundamental human right, and the essential foundation for building peaceful and prosperous societies.” 

The protection of children from violence has been equally voiced as a special concern by the many national consultations held around the world to inform the post 2015 global development agenda.  The report “A million voices: the world we want” highlights personal security and life in peace as the most urgent problems faced by people around the world. Inequality and lack of policies for children and youth are identified as crucial drivers of violence; and the elimination of all forms of violence against children as a crucial benchmark in the development agenda.

Similarly, the significant intergovernmental process currently underway reaffirms this concern. It reiterates strong commitments to prevent and address violence in schools and in public spaces; to end violence against girls and incidents associated with child, early and forced marriage; to reduce crime, violence and exploitation of children, as well as to eliminate discriminatory laws, policies and practices, and secure a culture of non-violence; and it calls for effective, accountable and transparent institutions and justice systems which are crucial to safeguard children’s right to freedom from violence and fight impunity.

Clearly, there is wide consensus on the need to ensure that the protection of children from violence is at the centre of the sustainable development agenda beyond 2015!

The fundamental issue is, therefore, how best to mobilize action and leverage progress in the years to come. In this process, three crucial steps are of essence:

Firstly, the protection of children from violence, including the most vulnerable and marginalized girls and boys, must be made an explicit priority and recognized as a cross-cutting concern across relevant focus areas of the global development agenda. This process needs to be supported by inclusive, sustainable and duly funded child protection systems, and sound investment to ensure children’s universal access to basic social services and to help families care for and protect their children.

Secondly, the international community needs to measure what it treasures. Building upon sound experience in the United Nations, academia and nations across regions, it is critical to promote the identification of concrete goals, targets and indicators to mobilise and monitor progress in this important agenda.

Thirdly, it is imperative to take into consideration the views expressed by those who are most affected - children and young people themselves! Their voice leaves no doubt as to the priority attached to freedom from violence. But they need to enjoy a genuine opportunity of influencing the shaping of the road ahead – not simply in accidental occasions, but as true partners and agents of change.

I am confident we will continue to join hands in the months ahead to place the protection of boys and girls from all forms of violence, everywhere and at all times, at the centre of the global development agenda. This is not just an ethical and human rights imperative; it is also a question of good governance and good economics!

Marta Santos Pais
New York, 24 April 2014