Summary and Recommendations
The global scandal of violence against children is a horror story too often untold. With malice and clear intent, violence is used against the members of society least able to protect themselves—children in school, in orphanages, on the street, in refugee camps and war zones, in detention, and in fields and factories. In investigating human rights abuses against children, Human Rights Watch has found a disturbing but persistent theme—in every region of the world, in almost every aspect of their lives, children are subject to unconscionable violence, most often perpetrated by the very individuals charged with their safety and well-being.
Children frequently experience violence at the hands of police and other law enforcement officials. Street children are especially easy targets because they are poor, young, often ignorant of their rights, and lacking adults to whom they can turn for assistance. They are beaten by police in order to extort money, and street girls may be forced to provide sex to avoid arrest or to be released from police custody. Seen as vagrants or criminals, street children have been tortured, mutilated, and subjected to death threats and extrajudicial execution.
Children are often detained by police without sufficient cause, and then subject to brutal interrogations and torture in order to elicit confessions or information. Once placed in juvenile and criminal correctional institutions, children are frequently mistreated and abused, enduring severe corporal punishment, torture, forced labor, denial of food, isolation, restraints, sexual assaults, and harassment. In many instances, children are detained with adults, leaving them at increased risk of physical and sexual abuse.
In schools, intended to nurture the development of children, violence may be a regular part of a child’s experience. In many countries, corporal punishment is still permitted as part of school “discipline.” Children are subjected to caning, slapping, and whipping that result in bruises, cuts, and humiliation and in some cases serious injury or death. Girls are at particular risk of sexual violence from both teachers and male students, and may be fondled, verbally degraded, assaulted and raped. Students may also be targeted because of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, caste, sexual orientation, social group, or other status. Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have been beaten, kicked, spit on, cut with knives, strangled, thrown against lockers, and dragged down flights of stairs.
Child laborers often endure long hours and grueling labor under difficult and harmful circumstances. For many, physical abuse is another feature of their daily lives. Child laborers are often beaten for working too slowly, making mistakes, arriving to work late, appearing tired, or simply as a means of intimidation. Those who attempt to escape such abuse and seek protection from the police may be returned directly to their employers.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children who have been orphaned or abandoned are placed in orphanages and other non-penal institutions. Dependent on the state for care, many instead experience shocking and sometimes deadly levels of abuse and neglect. They may be beaten, sexually abused, restrained in cloth sacks or tethered to furniture, and subjected to degrading treatment by staff. In some facilities, mortality rates have been staggering.
In armed conflict situations, children by the thousands are killed, maimed, raped, and tortured every year. Hundreds of thousands of children recruited as soldiers risk injury, disability and death in combat, as well as physical and sexual abuse by their fellow soldiers and commanders. Children who have fled war zones as refugees are also at risk. They remain vulnerable to physical abuse, sexual violence, and cross-border attacks.
Silence and inaction allow violence against children to continue. In nearly every setting where Human Rights Watch has found physical abuse against children, perpetrators have enjoyed impunity. Teachers who have sexually assaulted or injured their pupils continue to teach. Police officers who have tortured children before witnesses remain on duty. Orphanage staff who subject children to shocking levels of cruelty and neglect suffer no consequences. Even those responsible for the death of a child are rarely prosecuted and even less often convicted. War criminals who recruit, rape, or murder children remain at large.
There are several reasons for such impunity. Children—particularly those most vulnerable to abuse—have few mechanisms for reporting violence. They may be reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals. And because they are children, their complaints are often not taken seriously.
Even when children do make reports or abuse is exposed, perpetrators are rarely investigated or prosecuted. Those in a position to take action may be complicit in the abuse, reluctant to discipline or prosecute a colleague, or fearful of negative publicity. Adults who witness abuse by their own colleagues and attempt to report it may be fired for speaking up.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by nearly every country in the world, obliges governments to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence. Yet, millions of children continue to suffer violence and abuse. These acts of violence are often seen as lamentable yet isolated incidents rather than as global phenomena demanding a concerted international response.
This report is based on investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch since 1996 on violence against children. We carried out in depth investigations in eighteen countries in every region of the world. In doing so, we interviewed hundreds of children who have been victims of violence, members of their families, non-governmental organizations and other advocates, officials, and other sources. To protect their privacy, the names of children in this report have been changed, unless otherwise indicated.
In our investigations of violence against children, Human Rights Watch has focused primarily on abuses in the governmental sphere—although private actors also abuse children’s rights. The emphasis here is on violations of children’s rights by agents of the state and in institutions—like schools—that are state run or supported. The report also identifies violations arising through the failure of governments to take adequate steps to protect children from violence in the workplace, in the streets, and in situations of armed conflict.
Human Rights Watch considers a child to be any person under the age of eighteen, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as “every human being under the age of eighteen unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is obtained earlier.”
Human Rights Watch makes the following recommendations to the United Nations and national governments. More detailed recommendations appear at the end of this report.
To the United Nations:
To National Governments: