Violence against children – a measure of cowardice.

Childhood - not a time of joy for everyone.

Childhood – not a time of joy for everyone.

Doreen Lawrence, now formally ennobled as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon is well acquainted with the effects of violence. On the 22nd April 1993 her son Stephen was murdered by a group of racist bigots whilst waiting for a bus not far from his home in London. Stephen, who at the time of his death was studying technology and physics, and was hoping to become an architect, was stabbed to death by a group of white men, simply because of the colour of his skin. It was not until January 2012 that two men were convicted of his murder and sent to prison. Throughout this period of what must have been anguish and frustration, Doreen Lawrence whilst campaigning for justice maintained a quiet dignity that won her the respect of millions, not only in this country but around the world. It is therefore fitting that she has written the foreword to UNICEF’s recent report Every Child in Danger (2014).

The report makes harrowing reading as it reports upon the many situations in which children around the globe live in fear of violence. According to the report every five minutes a child somewhere in the world is killed by violence, and In 58 countries, more than half of children are violently disciplined in their homes or at school. It is quite evident that in many societies adults not only have power and authority over children, but that they wield it, and often do so indiscriminately and with dire consequences.

Some of the atrocities against children do receive high profile reporting and make international headlines. The attempted murder of the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and the kidnapping of 276 school girls by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram are just two examples of such high profile cases. But most of the violence against children receives little attention, and in some societies has become so endemic that it is no longer deemed newsworthy. The report indicates that children who live in the world’s poorest countries are more likely to suffer from violence especially in cities that are impoverished and isolated. It is no surprise that those living in countries ravaged by conflict are amongst the most vulnerable, with high percentages suffering either physical or mental harm.

All of this makes for distressing reading but what shocked me most about the report was the section that discusses violence in schools. I suppose many of us still like to see schools as providing a place of safety and care, a safe haven where the troubles of the world are given second place to providing a good education, and secure social opportunities. But the UNICEF report provides a number of worrying statistics that indicate that often this is far from reality for many children. According to this document, in Uganda 58% of girls who experience physical violence report teachers as being the perpetrators, and a similar situation is described for Tanzania. In many countries the excessive use of corporal punishment is seen to have caused lasting damage to children, and sadly for many children the levels of violence do not lessen greatly when they return home. The report suggests that in South Africa, a third of child victims of murder are killed by their mothers and one in five by their fathers or another family member.

In some countries children never have an opportunity to attend school because of the ever present threat of violence. An example of this is given in the report from Pakistan, where parents often refuse to let their daughters attend school if they think it is not equipped to ensure their privacy and guarantee their safety. Armed violence against schools, colleges and universities by terrorists, state militaries, or criminal groups over the past five years have become increasingly common meaning that many potential students are afraid to attend for an education.

We should not think that violence against children occurs only in those countries suffering social and economic challenges. The report indicates that in the UK more than 17,000 children were taken into care after suffering abuse or neglect in 2013, in Canada 14 per cent of high school students reported being bullied online or through text messages, and in Australia 1 in 10 parents believe it is acceptable to use physical means to punish a child.

Surely one of our duties as teachers must be to ensure that the children and young people entering our establishments feel secure, and recognise that they are in places where care and learning are the primary objective. It is evident that at home and in their communities many children are vulnerable, and are regularly subjected to violence. The onus is therefore upon those of us who are educators to establish places of safety where children can learn and thrive in the knowledge that they will come to no harm. It would be good to think that at sometime in the future there would be no further need for reports such as this from UNICEF.

I’m going to take a few days break – but I will return!