Of the many hardships endured by African children — beyond poverty, hunger and disease — violence is surely the worst, because it is almost entirely preventable, yet leaves lasting scars. African children, especially girls, continue to live with sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced labour, corporal punishment and countless other forms of abuse.
Thirty years ago, African Union member states adopted the African Children’s Charter, promising a new era in child rights and a recognition that child rights can no longer be disregarded with impunity.
Some African governments have made some progress — most notably, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Gambia, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa and Tunisia, have passed laws aimed at tackling most forms of violence against children. However, there have been limited advances towards eradicating FGM, child marriage and corporal punishment.
Overall, progress is uneven, fragmented and too slow. Violence against children is once more on the rise in many countries, driven partly by new forms of violence such as online sexual exploitation and child sex tourism.
Lockdowns during the pandemic have pushed violence against children behind closed doors, where it goes unchecked. Armed groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Amba in Cameroon frequently target children for killing, maiming, forced recruitment, abduction and rape.
It’s clear that many African governments have neither the political will nor the financial capacity to tackle this scourge.
In the face of inaction, it is left to civil society and child protection experts to take the lead. Last week, in an attempt to galvanise action, the African Partnership to End Violence against Children convened a virtual conference at which it presented not one but three new reports on the situation of violence against children in Africa.
The scale of violence revealed in these reports is staggering. More than half of all children experience physical abuse, while in some parts of Africa, four in ten girls suffer sexual violence before the age of 15.
Those who need the most care — children in residential care, those with disabilities, those living on the street or in situations of armed conflict and humanitarian emergencies — are disproportionately affected.
Consider this: on average, disabled boys and girls in Cameroon will experience four sexual assaults during their childhood. Except these are not statistics, they are children — and they deserve to be better protected.
Violence against children is not a uniquely African phenomenon. In 2020, the World Health Organisation estimated that globally, up to one-billion children aged 2-17 years had experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect in the previous year. But it’s clear that Africa has a significant problem, fuelled by complex cultural, political social and economic drivers and magnified by increasing urbanisation, armed conflict, forced displacement and gender-based violence.
By failing to take action now, African governments are simply stocking up on problems for the future. By 2050, the continent will be home to around one-billion young people who, given the chance, could power a social and economic renaissance. Yet the social and economic impacts of violence against children threaten to derail such ambitions.
Violence against children is directly related to poor educational attainment, school drop-out rates, job prospects and long-term poor health — with consequent hits to the cost of health and social care. In South Africa, for example, the economic losses resulting from violence against children in 2015 were estimated at $13.5-billion, or 4.3% of GDP.
The reduced earnings attributable to physical and emotional violence in childhood were $2‑billion and $750-million, respectively. If these costs were replicated across sub-Saharan Africa, they would exceed the total official development assistance from Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.
Ending violence against children is one of the most important priorities of our time, but it won’t happen without strong political leadership. What the AU needs to do, with urgency, is to adopt an African action plan to end violence against children. At state level, political leaders must scale up investment in child protection in their countries.
Importantly, political and financial support must be given to home-grown initiatives to end violence against children, those that are designed and owned by communities themselves. These have been shown to be successful in addressing the complex interplay between children and spaces where violence happens — their families, schools and societies.
Violence against children is preventable, and now more than ever we need to redouble our efforts to prevent it.
We have only eight years to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal 16.2, which aims to end all forms of violence. If we can achieve that, we will in turn unlock multiple wins in education, health and gender equality, and be a step closer to more peaceful and inclusive societies across Africa, in which every child grows up safe and secure.
Dr Joan Nyanyuki is a trained medical doctor and gender activist who is the executive director of the African Child Policy Forum. She previously worked for Amnesty International and the Coalition on Violence against Women