October 01, 2014

Interpersonal Violence against Children: A Global View

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Interpersonal violence threatens children worldwide. It undermines children’s future potential; damages their physical, psychological and emotional well-being; and in many cases, ends their lives. A UNICEF report, Hidden in Plain Sight, released in September 2014 explores the prevalence of different forms of violence against children, with global figures and data from 190 countries. Data are broken down by age and sex, to provide insights into risk and protective factors.

The report represents the largest compilation of global data to date on violence against children. It focuses on interpersonal violence, defined as “violent acts inflicted on children by another individual or a small group.” It focuses on violence by caregivers, other family members, authority figures, peers, and strangers in and outside the home.

Highlights and select findings include:


  • In 2012, nearly 95,000 children and teens were victims of homicide worldwide.

  • Most child victims of homicide are in their second decade of life, with higher victimization rates among boys.

  • Globally, regions with the highest child homicide rates are Latin America and the Caribbean, with West and Central Africa close behind.

  • Globally, regions with the lowest child homicide rates are Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Middle East, and North Africa.

  • Countries with the highest homicide rates are El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and Columbia. In each of these countries, homicide is the leading cause of death among adolescent boys.

Discipline/Physical punishment

  • Worldwide, about 6 in 10 children (1 billion) between ages two and 14 are physically disciplined by their caregivers in the home.

  • Over 40 percent of children 2 to 14 years old experience severe physical punishment in Chad, Egypt and Yemen. 

  • Physical punishment and psychological aggression are the most common forms of discipline used with children. 

  • Harsh forms of discipline —hitting a child on the head, ears, or face, or hitting a child repeatedly —are less commonly used. 

  • Caregivers with little or no education and those with low economic status are more likely to believe physical discipline is necessary to raise or educate a child.

Peer and intimate partner violence among adolescents

  • Worldwide, more than one in three adolescents between 13 and 15 years of age are regularly bullied.

  • About one-third of adolescents in Europe and North America admitted to bullying others. In Latvia and Romania, nearly 6 in 10 students admitted bullying others.

  • Globally, three in 10 adults believe physical punishment is needed to raise children well. In Swaziland, 82 percent said physical punishment is necessary.

  • Worldwide, one-quarter of adolescent girls age 15-19 reported being victims of physical violence since age 15.

  • Intimate partner violence is the most common form of gender-based violence against girls. Globally, one in three girls age 15-19 in formal unions have been the victims of emotional, physical, or intimate violence by their husbands or partners.

Sexual violence

  • Worldwide about 120 million girls have experienced forced sexual intercourse or another form of sexual violence.

  • The highest prevalence rates of sexual violence against girls occur in sub-Saharan African countries.

  • Current or former husbands, partners, or boyfriends are the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls.

  • Intimate partner violence is 70 percent or higher in the 

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea, and approaches or exceeds 50 percent in Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

  • Boys experience sexual violence but at much lower rates than girls. Current or former intimate partners are the most common perpetrators.

  • In the U.S., lifetime rates of sexual victimization among girls and boys age 14-17 were 35% (girls) and 20% (boys). 

Interpersonal violence reporting

  • Most victims of interpersonal violence keep their victimization secret and don’t report it.

  • Nearly half of all teen girls age 15-19 who reported physical or sexual victimization said they had never told anyone.

  • Boys are as likely as girls to keep their victimization secret and not report it. They remain silent because they don’t want to see their experience as a problem.

  • Female victims of sexual violence only are the least likely to disclose their abuse compared to female victims who experience physical violence only or physical and sexual violence.

  • A common reason for not disclosing abuse among girls age 15-19 is lack of awareness that the physical or sexual abuse is a form of violence. When girls do seek help, they turn to their families first instead of institutions that can help (social services, legal aid, police, medical facilities).

Attitudes towards domestic violence

  • Nearly half of all girls between ages 15-19 (126 million) believe a husband/partner is sometimes justified in hitting his wife. Acceptance rises to more than one-half in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa.

  • Adolescent boys age 15-19 also have supportive attitudes towards wife beating. About half of adolescent boys support the practice in Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia, while one-third support it in West and Central Africa.

  • Neglecting children is the mostly widely supported reason for acceptance of wife beating by female and male adolescents.

The report’s findings offer a snapshot of how interpersonal violence affects children throughout the world. The extent of the problem is believed to be much greater since the data was drawn from willing study participants, omitting the many children and youth who keep their victimization silent. 

These highlights were drawn from Hidden in Plain Sight: Executive Summary.

Download the full report.

Online Sexual Victimization: A Growing Risk

Growing Internet use by children creates risks for sexual victimization. Children engaged in conversations on social media sites, chat rooms, and other online forums may disclose images and information that makes them vulnerable to a global audience.  The UNICEF report highlighted common online forms of sexual victimization: 

Online grooming—offenders build a relationship of trust over time for the purpose of laying the groundwork for future sexual contact.  

Sexual images online—representation of a child engaged in real or simulated sexual activities.

Sexual cyberbullying—use of sexually loaded terms to insult, tease, make threats or jokes about sexual behavior, assault or rape; may also involve distributing sexually explicit photos of a child to defame or cause embarrassment. 

Claire Chiamulera is CLP's Editor