Of all the unspeakable injustices suffered by Africa’s children – and I’ve witnessed many – violence is surely the worst because it is almost entirely preventable. Africa’s children suffer many hardships, including poverty, hunger and disease. Violence against children is avoidable, yet young people in Africa, especially girls, continue to live with sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, forced labour, corporal punishment and countless other forms of abuse.
After decades spent trying to improve young people’s life chances, I had hoped to see at the very least a significant reduction in violence that threatens children. It is now 31 years since the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and we have seen some governments putting into place laws and policies aimed at ending violence against children. There have also been efforts, though insufficient, towards eradicating female genital mutilation and child marriage, which cause untold lifelong suffering.
Progress is uneven, fragmented and slow. Violence against children is once more on the rise driven partly by online sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse tourism and recently by lockdowns and school closures. These have pushed violence behind closed doors where it goes unseen and unreported. Armed conflicts by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Amba separatists in Cameroon, frequently target children, making them the most common victims of abductions, rape, forced marriages and murder.
Regrettably, many African governments lack the political will to tackle these gross violations. This week, in an attempt to galvanise action, the African Partnership to End Violence against Children (Apevac) convened a high-level virtual conference to present its new research findings confirming worrying levels of violence and slow government responses. Thankfully, there are also some good, African solutions that can be successfully applied across the continent.
I have witnessed the worst, as well as the best, of humanity. Yet the brutality revealed in these findings plumb new depths. Children still face unacceptable levels and forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence. In some parts of Africa, four in 10 girls suffer sexual violence before the age of 15. Even worse is that children in most need – those in residential care or used as child labour, with disabilities, living on the streets, or in armed conflict and refugee situations – are not protected.
Violence against children is not a uniquely African phenomenon. The World Health Organization estimated last year that globally up to a billion children aged 2-17 had experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect. Many African children enjoy peaceful lives, but it is clear the continent faces an urgent problem, fuelled by complex social and economic drivers. Increasing urbanisation, armed conflict, forced displacement, humanitarian and climate-related disasters all play a part.
Evidence shows that in the long term violence against children leads to poor health, higher school dropout rates and worse job prospects, with consequences for the cost of health and social care, and economic productivity. In South Africa, for example, the economic losses resulting from violence against children in 2015 were estimated at $13.5bn (£9.8bn), or 4.3% of GDP. The reduced earnings attributable to physical and emotional violence in childhood were $2bn and $750m respectively. If these costs were replicated across sub-Saharan Africa, they would exceed the total official development assistance from the 38-member country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
African governments are storing up problems for the future. By 2050, the continent will be home to about a billion young people. These children must be given the right life chances now. It is they who will drive Africa into the future and power a social and economic renaissance. The violence these children encounter today threatens to derail Africa’s ambitions.
Ending violence against children is one of the most important priorities of our time, and it will not happen without strong political leadership. I applaud Apevac and its call to the African Union to adopt a regional action plan and to political leaders to massively scale up investment in their countries. It is important that political and financial investment is given to Africa’s homegrown initiatives to end violence against children. Studies show such initiatives can be successful in addressing the interplay between schools and societies, law and culture, patriarchy and child rights.
Violence against children is preventable. We must redouble our efforts to stop it and remove the stain on our collective conscience. The United Nation’s sustainable development goal 16.2 aims to end all forms of violence against children by 2030. Achieving this will unlock multiple wins in gender equality, education, health and a more peaceful and inclusive Africa, where every child grows up safe and secure.
Graça Machel is chair of the African Child Policy Forum’s international board of trustees.