... State Parties shall take all appropriate ... measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 19
Violence is the use or threat of force that can result in injury, harm, deprivation or even death. It may have a purported purpose, such as punishment or forcing someone to act against their will, or it may be an act of random malice. It may be physical, verbal, or psychological. Whatever form it may take, violence is a human rights violation. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child and many other international and regional treaties guarantee the physical integrity, safety and dignity of the child, violence against children remains widespread. It occurs in every country in Europe, irrespective of people’s origin or social stratum.
The maltreatment of children falls into four general categories:
Emotional Abuse: This can take the forms of verbal abuse, mental abuse and psychological maltreatment. It includes acts or failures to act by parents or caretakers that cause or could cause serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional or mental disorders.
Neglect: The failure to provide for the child’s basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational or emotional. Physical neglect can include failure to provide adequate food or clothing, appropriate medical care, supervision or proper protection from the elements. It may include abandonment. Educational neglect includes failing to provide appropriate schooling or special educational needs and allowing excessive truancies. Psychological neglect includes the lack of love and emotional support and failure to protect the child from abuse, including allowing the child to participate in drug and alcohol use.
Physical Abuse: The inflicting of physical injury upon a child. This may include burning, hitting, punching, shaking, kicking, beating or otherwise harming a child. Such injuries are abuse whether the adult intended to do harm or not. For example, an injury may result from over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age.
Sexual Abuse: Inappropriate sexual behaviour with a child includes fondling a child’s genitals, making the child fondle the adult’s genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism and sexual exploitation. It involves forcing, tricking, bribing, threatening or pressurizing a child into sexual awareness or activity. Sexual abuse occurs when an older or more knowledgeable child or an adult uses a child for sexual pleasure. Sexual abuse is an abuse of power over a child and a violation of a child’s right to normal, healthy, trusting relationships.
The effects of such violence on children are devastating. It undermines their well-being and their ability to learn and socialise normally. It leaves physical and emotional scars that can provoke long term traumas. Furthermore, research shows that violence begets violence: an abused child is especially likely to become an abusing parent.
Violence against children must be addressed in all settings. Education, training and capacity building are needed to raise awareness and promote a culture of non-violence. Clear policies and effective reporting mechanisms are necessary, as is advocacy to put non-violence on the political agenda.
Violence in the family
In many European countries, society tolerates and even approves some recurrent forms of violence against children, in particular corporal punishment inflicted by the family as discipline. Such violence is indirectly sanctioned by law enforcement officials who do not recognize the acts as criminal. Even when states legislate against domestic violence, law enforcement may be selective or nonexistent. Dozen of European children still die each week from maltreatment.1
Violence can be hidden and hard to detect when committed by persons who are part of the children’s everyday lives in places that should be havens for children, such as the school, the family or residential institutions. Because violence in the families is the least visible form of violence against children, statistics are difficult to obtain and often unreliable. Many children are afraid to speak out against family members, especially in cases of sexual abuse. This silence puts an unqualified burden of responsibility on all those who work with children to know the signs of abuse and report them in every case
One third of Council of Europe member states have abolished corporal punishment (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, and the Ukraine)2 and others are committed to legal reform. Despite these positive developments, corporal punishment remains lawful in several countries and is still perceived as an acceptable form of ‘discipline’. To end corporal punishment in the home requires an attitude change on the part of parents that leads to more positive, non-violent methods of bringing up children.
Violence in schools
One in every ten school children faces violence at school, and these figures are rising.3 The level of violence is linked less to the economic affluence of the country than to the country’s attitudes towards children and the political significance of children in society.4 Although corporal punishment is banned in most European schools, bullying and mobbing is widespread. Children who are slightly different – more clever, bigger or smaller, or with a different skin colour or accent – can find themselves the target of sarcastic humour, rumours, name-calling, intimidating situations and exclusion, as well as physical attacks on their person or belongings.
Bullying in schools may take the form of gang violence or racially motivated attacks especially targeting ethnic minorities or migrants. Today bullying often occurs in the form of ‘cyberbullying’, in which demeaning photographs or insulting comments about a child are circulated over the Internet. Because this form of bullying is largely anonymous, instantaneous and far reaching, it is especially harmful for affected children. For children who are the victims of such violence, school becomes a place of terror, not a place to learn. A UN World Report on violence against children showed that girls in Europe are more often bullied than boys and that eighty percent of violence in schools is carried out by the 12-16 age group.5
There is a need for public awareness and zero tolerance of school violence. School officials, teachers and parents should be able to detect symptoms of violence and act promptly against it. Every school needs consistent prevention policies to eliminate violence and easy, confidential ways for children to lodge complaints. Involving children in awareness-raising and peer support are effective assets to combating violence in schools.
The European Observatory on Violence in Schools (EOVS) researches school and urban violence. Based at Victor Ségalen University of Bordeaux in France, it studies violence in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well some non-European countries, namely Canada, Japan, Mexico and Burkina Faso.
EOVS studies the problems related to violence and coordinates an international network of collaborators, including UNESCO and the European Parliament.
European Observatory of Violence in Schools: www.obsviolence.com/english/presentation/index.html
Media and Internet exposure
The Internet and other form of media can expose young people to a wide range of risks. Whether intentional or unintentional, exposure to inappropriate material, such as violent pictures, racist propaganda and pornography, constitutes a form of violence. The Internet also makes a child open to harassment and paedophile activity, even in the safety of the family home.6 See Theme 9, Media and Internet above, p. 257, for a discussion of media education to protect children from such exploitation. In 2006 the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted a special recommendation on empowering children in the new information and communications environment.7
Sexual abuse of children
Child sexual abuse and exploitation are significant problems in Europe today. It can take many forms including incest, pornography, prostitution, trafficking in human beings and peer sexual assault, all of which can cause serious damage to children’s mental and physical health.
It is estimated that between ten and twenty percent of children in Europe are sexually assaulted in childhood.8 However, most victims do not report the crime perpetrated against them. Many are too young at the time to understand what has happened. Others may have no-one to trust or who will believe them, or they feel too ashamed, guilty and betrayed to tell anyone. Many are threatened and manipulated by the offender, who in the majority of cases is a family member or an adult friend known to the child.
Forced prostitution and organised paedophilia are other forms of sexual abuse where the child is forced to engage in sexual acts with strangers and other adults for money paid to the adult procurer. Children in situations of armed conflicts, displaced, migrant and refugee children, children in institutions, children who lack family support and children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to all forms of sexual exploitation. Parents, teachers, social workers and policy makers all have a role in the protection of children from sexual abuse.
Trafficking in human beings is the modern version of the slave trade. Human beings are treated as commodities to be bought and sold and subjected to every form of exploitation. Trafficking is a violation of human rights and an offence to the dignity and integrity of all human beings.
A ‘child victim of trafficking’ is any person under the age of eighteen who is recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received for the purpose of exploitation, either within or outside a country. In some cases children are tricked into trafficking with promises of schooling and travel; in others their impoverished families turn them over for a cash reward.
Trafficking exposes children to violence and sexual abuse and deprives children of the right to preserve their identity, to grow up in a family, to education, healthcare, rest and leisure, and to freedom from degrading treatment or punishment. (See also discussion of child labour in Theme 4: Education and Leisure above, p. 231)
In Europe, trafficking children is generally for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour. Trafficked children are subjected to prostitution, forced into marriage or illegally adopted; they provide cheap or unpaid labour in agriculture or sweatshops, work as house servants or beggars, and are used for sports. Because they are illegal, trafficked children are usually hidden from public view and difficult to identify. Because they often do not speak the local language and are kept under strict supervision, their opportunities to escape or seek help are severely limited.
Vulnerable groups of children
Although violence against children is not limited to any group or economic class, some children are especially vulnerable to abuse. These include:
- Homeless urban children: ‘Street children’ face a much higher risk of sexual exploitation, especially girls. UNICEF reports that there are over 100 million children living in the streets of the world today.9 Thousands of street children can be found in every large city in Europe, and their numbers are growing due to unemployment, poverty and immigration.
- Children with disabilities: Although children with disabilities are often the targets of abuse, including violence and sexual assault, child protection services rarely address their needs. Social services may, in fact, perpetuate the abuse of children with disabilities by stigmatizing them as ‘special’ or ‘in need’. In many respects, children with disabilities are taught to be good victims, especially girls who are often valued less than boys. Disabled girls are also less likely than boys to be educated, receive adequate health care and rehabilitation treatment or be permitted to participate in their communities.10
- Refugee and immigrant children: Refugee and immigrant children may be subject to violence both within the home and in the community from acts of xenophobia. Because their parents are often unfamiliar with its laws and standards, children may be subject to harmful traditional practises such as female genital cutting and male ritual scarification. Family traumas and instability may also lead to child abuse.
- Child mothers: Although themselves still children and entitled to all the protections and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, girls who have babies are widely assumed to have entered adulthood whether they marry or not. They are thus caught in a kind of legal limbo, without the protections offered to children and too young to claim the legal rights of adults.
What you can do to prevent violence against children
- Monitor the situation of children and report any violence;
- Monitor government policies and programmes to protect children from violence and pressure authorities for protective legislation;
- Support families through parenting programmes;
- Break the silence! Speak up about violence you experience or witness;
- Challenge the social acceptance of violence;
- Raise awareness about violence against children;
- Recognize signs of violence;
- Mobilize the school and community to prohibit and eliminate bullying and other forms of violence against children;
- Teach children how to protect themselves from abuse and harm;
- Teach children non-violent ways to manage conflict;
- Do not use violence yourself.
Relevant human rights instruments
Council of Europe
Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights states that “No-one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. To promote and protect this fundamental right, the Council of Europe has addressed many aspects of violence through legal means, awareness raising and campaigns (e.g. trafficking, gender-based violence, child labour, violence in the media).
The Council of Europe has established legal protections against many forms of violence:
- The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading treatment or Punishment (CPT) develops standards for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty, provides non-judicial preventive machinery to protect young detainees and regularly visits young offenders’ institutions.11
- The Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings aims to prevent trafficking, protect the human rights of victims of trafficking and prosecute traffickers.12 This legally binding treaty, which came into force in 2005, applies to all forms of trafficking, all victims and all forms of exploitation, including sexual, forced labour, slavery, servitude and removal of organs for sale.
- The Convention on Cybercrime, which includes offences related to child pornography, states in Article 9 that parties shall adopt “legislative and other measures to criminalize various specified uses of computers involving child pornography”.13
- The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, adopted in 2007, is the first treaty to target specifically child abuse. It will fill gaps in European legislation and establish a harmonized legal framework to combat this scourge that affects between 10-20% of all children in Europe.14
Many activities and programmes of the Council of Europe also address issues of violence against children:
- In 2006 the Council initiated ‘Building Europe with and for Children’. As a follow-up to the UN Report on Violence Against Children in Europe, this three-year programme has among its key purposes that of combating various forms of violence against children, such as corporal punishment, domestic violence, sexual abuse and trafficking. In this area of its mandate, the programme sets standards, formulates policy guidelines and oversees a strong awareness-raising campaign involving governments, parliaments, municipalities, professionals and NGOs in Europe.
- The Human Rights Commissioner systematically addresses children’s rights and protection against violence during his monitoring visits to member countries.
- The Council of Europe Campaign to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings was launched in 2006 under the slogan ‘Human being – not for sale’. The Campaign seeks to raise awareness of the extent of trafficking in human beings in Europe today. It highlights different measures to prevent this new form of slavery, as well as efforts to protect the human rights of victims and to prosecute the traffickers.
- In 2007 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe initiated an all-European survey on street children and policy making to address this problem.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) recognizes freedom from violence as a fundamental human right in Article 5. However, this right is developed much further in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989). Article 19 defines many forms of ill-treatment, including sexual abuse, mental violence and exploitation:
States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
Both Articles 19 and 37 specifically protect the child from execution, which is still practised in some countries outside Europe.
As the most widely ratified of all UN human rights instruments, the Children’s Convention provides a powerful legal basis for the protection of children from violence, whether from the state, from institutions, or individuals. It is invaluable for organisations of all kinds that work for the protection of children.
Domestic violence was long ignored as a ‘private matter’, except in case of grave bodily harm or death. However, the Vienna Declaration of 1993 recognized violence against women and girls, whether committed by the state or by individuals, as a human rights violation. This recognition was followed the same year by the adoption by the General Assembly of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the appointment of Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, an expert appointed to compile information on violence against women and girls. The Declaration specifically calls for programmes in schools at all levels designed to challenge patterns in men’s and women’s behaviour.15
- Action against Trafficking in Human Beings: Prevention, protection and prosecution, Council of Europe, 2007:
- Building a Europe for and with Children: The facts about children and violence, Fact-pack, Council of Europe:
- Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, Fact Sheet: Council of Europe: 2006:
- Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly Resolution 48/104 of 20: UNESCO, 1993:
- Forced Labour, Child Labour and Human Trafficking in Europe: An ILO Perspective: International Labour Office, Brussels, 2002:
- Frau-Meigs, Divina, Council of Europe Pan-European Forum on Human Rights in the Information Society: Empowering Children and Young People: Council of Europe, 2006:
- Gender Matters – A manual on addressing gender-based violence with young people: Council of Europe, 2007.
- Handbook for Parliamentarians: The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings: Council of Europe, 2007:
- Kennedy, Margaret, ‘Rights for Children Who Are Disabled’, in The Handbook of Children’s Rights: Routledge, London, 1995.
- May-Chahal, Corinne and Herczog, Maria, Child sexual abuse in Europe: Council of Europe, 2003.
- Recommendation Rec(2006)12 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on Empowering Children in the New Information and Communications Environment, Council of Europe, 2006.
- Working to Prevent the IT-Related Sexual Exploitation of Children: Save The Children Denmark, 2005:
- Activist Toolkit, Making rights a reality:
- Child Rights Information Network:
- Corporal punishment...No punishment is justifiable:
- Council of Europe:
- Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings:
- European Observatory of Violence in Schools:
- Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights:
- Street Children and Homelessness:
- The United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children:
- End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes:
- International Labour Organization, International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO-IPEC):
- Institute for Research on Working Children (IREWOC):
- Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSC):
1 Corporal Punishment...No violence against children is justifiable:
2 Building a Europe for and with Children: The facts about children and violence, Fact-pack, Council of Europe:
3 The United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children:
4 Violence Against Children – Europe and Central Asia, UNICEF, p.9:
5 The United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children:
6 Working to Prevent the IT- Related Sexual Exploitation of Children: Save the Children Denmark, 2005.
7 Recommendation Rec(2006)12 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on Empowering Children in the New Information and Communications Environment: Council of Europe, 2006.
8 The United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children:
9 See Street Children and Homelessness:
10 Margaret Kennedy, ‘Rights for Children Who are Disabled’ in The Handbook of Children’s Rights: London, Routledge, 1995, p. 149.
12 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings:
13 See Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime:
14 Council of Europe’s Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation, See
15 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly Resolution 48/104 of 20, Art. 4: UNESCO, 1993: