Worldwide, more than a third of women have experienced sexual or domestic violence. And more than half of all children aged two to 17 – a billion children around the world – have experienced emotional, physical or sexual violence in the past year alone.
Policies and programs have historically largely treated the two forms of violence separately, with different funding streams, government agencies, and strategies. But new research shows that they are deeply linked.
Child victims of violence or neglect have increased risk of becoming either perpetrators or victims of violence as adults. Even witnessing intimate partner violence against their mother can make children more likely to experience violence in future relationships, whether as a perpetrator or victim.
In one study of 12 Latin American countries, the most consistent risk factor for women experiencing partner violence was their father beating their mother. Men in Asia and the Pacific who were abused or neglected as children were significantly more likely to commit sexual or domestic violence.
“It makes sense to look for opportunities for coordination across these areas”
“I’ve been working on violence against women for 20 years now, and it’s only in the past five or six years that I have really started to think about the connections,” said Alessandra Guedes, Regional Advisor on Family Violence at the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO). “I think that’s largely due to all the new evidence that’s coming out about the intersections.”
Violence against children and violence against women share many similar root causes and risk factors. Weak legal sanctions against perpetrators, fragile human rights protections, social norms that make violence acceptable and gender inequality are all drivers of violence against both women and children. Male dominance within families, economic insecurity and marital conflict all heighten the risk.
These developments in understanding, combined with increasing recognition of the particular needs of adolescent girls experiencing violence – from child marriage to dating violence – have generated a push for a more integrated agenda.
“It makes sense to look for opportunities for coordination across these areas. But I don’t think that we always need to be looking at these issues jointly,” said Guedes.
“We’ve seen a number of examples of women’s and children’s health issues being placed side-by-side, and women often get the short end of the stick. I think that the prevention of vertical transmission of HIV is a case in point, maternal and child health is another example. It needs to be done in a careful, ethical way,” she said.
Now, a range of interventions are succeeding—both in reducing violence, and negotiating the ethical challenges of integrating programming for women and children.
“You often find very creative initiatives in low and middle-income countries”
Programs that aim to shift social norms around gender inequality or the acceptability of violence have been particularly effective in several settings. Raising Voices’ SASA! intervention trains activists to shift local norms around violence through discussions about unequal power dynamics within their communities. Physical partner violence plummeted 52% in SASA! communities compared to control areas without any exposure to the project, largely due to a shift in attitudes around the acceptability of violence. Critically, the program also benefitted children: 20% fewer children witnessed domestic partner violence where SASA! ran.
At the family level, small group interventions addressing financial hardship have reduced both intimate partner violence and child maltreatment. Some cash transfer programs have cut domestic violence witnessed by children. In Cote d’Ivoire, a financial savings and loans program that incorporated group discussions on gender equality reduced physical intimate partner violence by over 50% for women who participated with their male partners. South Africa’s Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity showed similar results.
On an individual level, home visiting and parenting programs have successfully reduced violence in the home. One example is in Hawaii, where the Healthy Start home visitation project simultaneously reduced child neglect and intimate partner violence.
“You often find very creative initiatives in low and middle-income countries. I think this is actually a field where there is a lot to be learned horizontally—it’s not the case that we only have great examples from the Global North,” said Guedes.
Integrating these fields poses risks, however. Women and children have different experiences and needs. Combining agendas runs ethical risks, including prioritising one group over the other.
“All of a sudden, we have this push on folks working on violence against women to incorporate violence against children”
“I just worry a little bit with this push. I’ve seen, for example, documents that say we must first address violence against children in order to address violence against women,” said Guedes. “If we look at discussions on sexual harassment taking place around the world, while you may argue that to change gender norms you must start early, I wouldn’t say that requires necessarily addressing violence against children first.”
“All of a sudden, we have this push on folks working on violence against women to incorporate violence against children, and I’m not sure that the reverse is happening at the same pace. Those in a position of funding or decision-making need to be mindful of how these issues get integrated, and colleagues who come from the child protection field have to be sensitive to the fact that it has taken the women’s movement decades of work to get violence against women on the political agenda.”
Recognising these risks is important as policymakers move towards more collaboration. In some cases, separate approaches, programs, and perspectives will always be needed. But recognising and tackling the common roots, risk factors and power inequalities that lead to violence against both women and children can only lead to improved policies and programs for everyone.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Pan American Health Organization)