Preventing violence against children promotes better health

July 2016

A woman and child in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
A woman and child in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
WHO/G Rohrig

A stolen toy, a child’s lie, a harsh punishment – sometimes physical. Nine-year-old Simamnkele and his care-giver, Nombuyiselo, know the sequence well.

“I never used to listen back then,” Simamnkele says. “I was very naughty.”

Nombuyiselo, who had taken on the parenting role for the young South African child several years ago, adds: “This boy continued with his habits as he grew older, taking other children’s toy cars and cellphones. I’d come home and find parents standing outside my house looking for their children’s toys. This troubled me a lot. He always denied things. So I used to beat him. I used to beat him a lot for lying.”

But supported by the WHO- and UNICEF-backed Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) programme, the pair now enjoy a positive relationship, one which ensures the young child’s development is healthy and prevents him from embarking on risky routes that could endanger his health and wellbeing.

INSPIRE: strategies to reduce violence against children

Over the past 4 years, the programme has spread to more than 20 countries due to increasing demand. It is one example of the measures being promoted by the new “INSPIRE” package of 7 interlinked strategies from WHO, UNICEF and other global partners aimed at reducing violence against children.

Violence against children is associated with a range of negative impacts, including on the physical and mental wellbeing of the children themselves, particularly later in life. WHO and a variety of other organizations have been working to address causes of childhood violence, including in parenting situations. The INSPIRE initiative aims to take such action further.

Dr Catherine Ward, a child psychology expert and a founder of PLH, says the organization’s work is solutions-based, with a strong focus on showing parents that there are a range of options for parenting that lead to positive results for the care-giver and the child.

“We are seeing parents using harsh parenting often because they don’t know alternatives,” says Dr Ward. “They want to do the right thing. But parents who use harsh discipline can affect children’s mental health badly, often leading to depression and problems around the child’s conduct, including risky behaviour ranging from substance abuse and unsafe sex to injuries associated with riding motorcycles without helmets.”

Recent research indicates that up to 1 billion children have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence in the past year. Over the course of their childhood, 1 in 4 children suffer from physical abuse. Almost 1 in 5 girls, and 1 in 13 boys, suffer sexual abuse. Homicide is among the top 5 causes of death in adolescents.

But research has found children who are warmly and consistently parented are less likely to develop depression, get addicted to drugs and alcohol, and engage in risky sex. They are also less likely to get involved in crime and violence.

Now working in settings from South Sudan and El Salvador to the Philippines and Italy, PLH has seen common traits emerge, either in the universality of the forms of harsh and often violent discipline they have seen practised, to the willingness of parents to seek support from parenting programmes.

Parents want to do the best for their children

“If you make such services possible, people will attend,” adds Lucie Cluver, a co-founder of PLH and professor of child and family social work teaching at the universities of Cape Town and Oxford. “Parents everywhere want to do the best for their children, and are very willing to receive support on issues like preventing corporal punishment and harsh discipline. This is very positive.”

Dr Alexander Butchart, WHO’s Prevention of Violence Coordinator, says PLH fills a major gap in programming for low-resource contexts, as it is designed to be as low-cost as possible without sacrificing the essential ingredients for its effectiveness.

“Examples like the PLH model are so important to WHO because they connect the prevention of child maltreatment with the new emphasis in global heath on ensuring sound early childhood development, so that children both survive and thrive,” Dr Butchart says.